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.

Image

 

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.

Advertisements

4/14: Ten Questions With Stephanie Lane Sutton

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.

 

Image

 

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

13/30: Ten Question With Aaron Samuels

Aaron Samuels

I recently mentioned the joy I get out of seeing poets operate in the cities they call home. I was out east doing some shows this winter, and I happened to have a free night at the same time Aaron Samuels was having his book release party in Providence, where he grew up. I got to really take in his love for community. This idea of home being home, and the love he has for it. I think that may be what I appreciate most of what I know of Aaron. Sure, I also appreciate his approach to his work. How structured and organized he is as an artist is a firm reminder to me as I look at a bedroom with poems in ten different places. Of course, I appreciate his poems. The way his work invites us in to the hard conversations, sits us down, and guides us through, always using himself as a lens. I appreciate the way he thinks, and the conversations I’ve had with him. How he can excitedly bounce from topic to topic so seamlessly, you often wish for more time to pick his brain. But like all of the artists I’m using this platform to talk to/about, I really enjoy Aaron’s sense of community. Not just that he writes about where he’s from, but the way that the people where he’s from talk about him. The way artists in his home area talk about not just him, but his family, and what they’ve meant. The way everyone in the room that night looked at him, proud. Knowing they were watching one of their own, a greatness that still has barely scratched the surface. You can learn so much by watching people watch the people they are proud of. Aaron’s work, personality, and way of thinking greets us with a sense of pride that is contagious. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

When I was out doing some shows in the Northeast earlier this year, I had the pleasure of having the timing work out so that I could make your book release party in your home area of Providence. There is something really magical about watching an artist being received and congratulated in their own environment. It was an incredibly touching experience that I was glad to be able to witness. Also, I feel like I learned a lot about you as a person, just watching you navigate the stories that show up in your poems on familiar turf. I love origins. And you are proud of yours. Tell me about Edgewood?

Edgewood was the neighborhood I grew up in. It is maybe one square mile of an intersecting community, right on the border of Southside Providence and Warwick. It’s in between three cities, so that makes it pretty interesting. The bay rides it along the eastside and brings three very different communities together. Warwick is like a strip mall, Cranston is the biggest city, geographically, and Southside Providence is one of the rougher areas in Rhode Island. So you get this really interesting mix of class, race, and religion, and it’s a community based on a lot of these intersections happening, which I think is representative of the state of Rhode Island, on the whole. I can walk from the exurbs to the suburbs to the hood in 30 minutes, which is a crazy experience.

 

We’ve spoken before about how race played a role in our respective childhoods, and how where we grew up played into that. You’ve told me about growing up in a mixed race household, and in an area that sometimes wasn’t completely supportive of that. How did that shape you as a writer/person?

Tremendously. At the onset, I grew up in a mixed race household, so having a black protestant father and a white Jewish mom; I was forced to start thinking about race a lot earlier than many of my mono-racial peers. I was always seeing a conversation about race happening within my own family and household. My parents were also very open to talking about it, so even before I was writing these were things that I was processing and thinking about in really deep ways.

Now days? It’s still really deeply ingrained. I focus on identity intersection. I’m most interested in the moments when different identities inside of us come into conversation with each other. When race comes into conversation with gender. When sexuality comes into conversations with class. And the conversations inside of those conversations are the most interesting to me.

 

What I’m finding, the more I discover my own voice, is that a powerful tool that we have is our own experience, and the revisiting of various things to express a larger message within the work. You have so many poems that strike me as nostalgic. These beautiful snapshots of places, people, events. After reading just two poems, I felt like I knew Kevin. I felt like I could have lived in Edgewood. I felt all of those things. As the author, I hope you appreciate what that does for a reader. What role does nostalgia play in your work?

I think I’m a nostalgic person. As far as the tool as a literary device, for me, it is an enabler. A lot of times when we enter into difficult conversations about race or sexuality or identity, we enter them from our adult lens, which makes it hard. So, a lot of times in my work, I try to take the reader back to a place before these notions were created. Somewhat of an original position where using nostalgia helps to emotionally transfer the writer and reader to an earlier childhood place where they can be more open to processing these types of things. Some of the characters in my book are processing things for the first time.

 

Dark Noise Collective. I’ve been really excited to talk to one of you about this group, and what the mission of it is. I really love this idea of talented people forming one unit and working/creating together. How did this start, and is the nature of it truly as collaborative it looks to me, as an outsider?

On face value, the collective is a support network, and it’s a family. And the operating thesis was can we take a small group of emerging artists of color in their mid 20’s who are already doing well in their forms, and then by combining our energy and building a support network of deep friendship and deep interest in each other’s personal and professional pursuits, will that amplify each of us? And I think the resounding answer is yes. I think all six of us have seen pretty great growth, both artistically and professionally. And we also do collaborative shows, with the six of us and with different combinations. We’re working on different projects. Video poems, a lot of surprises.

At a music festival a few years ago, I covered a talk that Nas was doing where he talked about how much of his life went into making Illmatic, and how once it was complete, he was a little lost, from a creative standpoint. Kind of how putting that much into one single thing can drain you, regardless of the gifts you have to give. We have all of our lives to create our first thing, be it an album, book, painting, whatever. And when it’s done, we’re still alive. We’re still living, and still artists, and still documenting that experience. So I wonder, after putting so much of yourself into a brilliant project like the book Yarmulkes And Fitted Caps, what do you do next?

I put three years of my life explicitly into that project, but it is also a story of my life, to this point. So I’ve been working on it for like 25 years, so that’s an important question. The short answer is that the project is not over. The creation of the book is just the first step. There are writing workshops and identity discussion workshops in the back of the book. I really hope to push it as a teaching instrument to push difficult conversations about social identity. After the book, I went on tour for six months not only performing, but teaching workshops from the book, and showing that it can be used as a teaching device. I’m still working on projects around it, developing video poems and potentially a one man show. Of course, as an artist, I need to move on to other projects. I have some other manuscripts in the works, but those are maybe a few years out. But in many ways, I have enjoyed writing poems that don’t have to fit into this project and exploring where my creative juices are taking me.

A thing that we have in common is that in addition to our creative pursuits, we both work full time jobs. Now, of course, being an artist is ALSO a full time job, and then some. But I really enjoy having these conversations with artists who work in office settings, and you in particular, because you work in what many would describe as Corporate America. I remember, during your book release, you mentioned being excited to find out that a co-worker was also an artist. How do you balance these worlds?

It’s not easy. I think that there’s a paradox here. The paradox is that working a job where I’m working 60-80 hours a week, it doesn’t leave time for anything else, especially creative pursuits. The flipside is that when I was on the road, doing art all day, when I got to whatever bed I was crashing on, the last thing I wanted to do was write a poem after living in art all day. When you spend all day doing financial analysis, when I get home at night, I am wired for creative ability. I often fantasize about a life where I can create poems every day, but sometimes I wonder if I create better art after building the quantitative side of my brain because they balance each other. It’s not sustainable to put 60 hours into a job and 20 into poetry, but then again, who has an existence in their 20s that is sustainable into later life? I think part of me will always be a mix between quantitative and creative. Part of me will always be a business man and a poet. It’s another intersection. I don’t think they have to be in conflict, I think it’s about finding balance.

 

And what of your relationship with slam? That is how so many of us have discovered your work, and something that I know you have great roots in. Even if you see yourself taking time off, do you still feel connected?

I’ve been a competitor in slam every year since 2005. Up until now. So that’s nine group competitions, two individual competitions, and several coaching positions on top of that. So I’m very rooted in the community on every level. So, in some ways, if I took a year off, I don’t think that means I’m not interested. This is my family; this is where I came from. I can take five years off, and it will still be my home. This past year, the slam community went through a lot of challenges, and that was hard for me, because it was always my home. It was my reprieve from the corporate world where I think I don’t feel emotionally recharged, and slam helps me through that. So to watch that community, in some ways, go up in flames and then start to rebuild was difficult. It became just another source of anxiety. That being said, the community is constantly exploding and recharging and there’s a history of that too. And I believe that there are lots of good people and this community has been an incredible springboard. I’m thankful for what the community has given me and I’m not done receiving or giving back. Coaching youth poetry has always fulfilled me and I know I have some of that left before I throw in the towel. The community and the art form are inseparable. It has always been a part of the community for me. The art is secondary, because it happens in the context of the community.

 

I like how the pride in your various identities can’t help but to bleed into your work, as well. Like many of the poets I’m interviewing this month, I have used your book as a teaching tool, and it works wonders in classrooms with teenagers. There’s a very real permission in your work that echoes this message of identity acceptance, even up against some overwhelming odds. Where does that pride come from?

Short answer is that I can’t be anybody but myself, and I have a lot of pride in my family and parents and the heritages that I come from. The more I got older, the more I learned that being black means so many things. There’s more genetic diversity among black people than any other diaspora in the world. Being black doesn’t mean one thing. And the more I learn about Judaism, I find the exact same thing. There are so many different Jews in the world. In representing those things, it means so much, due to the fact that there isn’t just one version of black and one version of Jewish, so I’m operating at the intersection of millions of things, as we all are. That said, there are things about being black and Jewish that have shaped the way I view my world and art. The one tough thing about being black and Jewish is knowing that, for years, people have been trying to kill you or enslave you and profit off of your body. And while I don’t like to wake up in a bad mood every day, part of waking up knowing that you’re black and Jewish is waking up knowing that you’re a target. Maybe not now, maybe not in this particular room, but in many places in the world. There are people trying to destroy you, and have been, as a project, for thousands of years. I think that there’s something there that you carry with you. I think most black people carry it with them. I think most Jews carry it with them. This idea of never believing in safety. And I think that shows up in my work, as well. Even if you’re comfortable, the need to always look over your shoulder and cover your bases. That’s not all that blackness is, or Jewishness is. There’s also magic. There’s also survival. There’s also making humor in the face of overwhelming odds, and I try to put that in my work as well.

 

I appreciate, also, the discussions that you generate on gender. Your work really challenges me, as a reader, to rethink some long-held ideas on gender, and how I operate in that world of thought. What drives you to challenge gender in your work the way you do?

It’s important for me to not look at gender, or any identity in isolation. So, again, it’s all about intersection. So I look at how being black and Jewish IS gendered, and the legacy of masculinity within those two cultures. I think it’s interesting, if you look at the history of black and Jewish people in the world, there has been a project to dismantle notions of masculinity. I think Jews from the beginning of history as I know it, Jews have been circumcising their males, and there was propaganda about how that made Jews less manly, and the portrayals of the Jewish male as slimy, emasculated characters. And that’s one of the stereotypes of the Jew throughout history. I think in many ways, the figure of the black man has been emasculated through hyper masculinity. These over sexual brutes that rape and pillage white women and start fights, and have sex with anything that moves, and I think that stereotype is in service of emasculating men. And these are the two cultures that I grew up in, and I think about how the world wants to take away my masculinity, and I think of how the culture has fought back against that, sometimes in great ways or in problematic ways. Some men trying to overcompensate in ways that are problematic to women, and men who don’t fall in line. And so that forces my work to look at the legacies of misogyny and the legacies of sexism in blackness and Judaism. And there’s a complication there. So my work is not just looking at these legacies, but also asking what comes next. How do you be a good black man, or a good Jewish man, and what are my responsibilities. Understanding the burdens and privileges that masculinity provides me.

 

Finally, when you were last here, we hit on something in a conversation at Thurman’s, but we couldn’t linger on it. But, man, I really, really wanted to go back to it and have an hour long discussion on it, because it is something I have written on extensively, it is something I have taught extensively, and it is something that I fight internally with, also extensively. We were talking about “Blurred Lines”, and how, while we were not fans of the song, that there are ways to have problematic music (or film, or etc) be some shit that you vibe to. I was wondering if we could expand on that now. Can something problematic be your jam? How do you manage it?

This is tough, and everyone has to draw their own lines. It’s hard, because what music isn’t problematic? It’s a reflection of the culture that we live in. I try to minimize the amount of problematic messages that I put in my ears, but I also recognize that chronicling history sometimes means recognizing the problematic stuff around us. Now, do I think Blurred Lines is problematic? ABSOLUTELY, and I can’t get down with it. If you can, that’s on you.

But I can also understand my own hypocrisy.  Because I have definitely gotten down to songs that are messed up, or artists who have done messed up things, so I’m not sure that’s where I draw the line. I think there is something bigger here, which is that hip hop often gets a bad rap for being misogynistic. People are quick to say “I don’t listen to hip hop”. I think statements like that boil down to racism. There’s a legacy of misogyny in every musical tradition. I find it in country, I find in Jewish cultural music. In the blues, in rock, in folk. There’s problematic stuff everywhere. Songs about rape or violence against women, in every tradition. Does that make it OK? Nah, not at all. I just don’t want it to be written off as a problem that black people have. It’s a problem that men have, and I don’t think black men are immune to that problem. I’m not into the Blurred lines video, but I don’t think that means I’m anti  hip-hop or anti- R&B. It means that’s where my line is, and that’s a decision people have to make.

 Aaron, thank you so much for doing this. You know I believe so strongly in your work, and I look forward to talking again soon.

 

Image

AARON LEVY SAMUELS is a Pushcart-nominated poet, a TEDx speaker, and an acclaimed facilitator of critical identity discussions.  Raised in Providence, Rhode Island, by a Jewish-American mother and an African-American father, Aaron discovered spoken word poetry at age 14 when his English teacher told him he was not allowed to break meter.  After declining this advice, Aaron went on to become one of the premiere performance poets in the country, featuring on TV One’s Verses & Flow, HBO’s Brave New Voices, and TEDx Washington University. His work has appeared in multiple journals including the Tidal Basin Review, Apogee Journal, and Muzzle Magazine.  His debut collection of poetry, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps, was released by Write Bloody Publishing in fall 2013.

 

 

12/30: Ten Questions With Bill Moran

Bill Moran

I truly believe that if you are doing this whole “community” thing right, liking the poems can be a bonus. To some extent, anyone I have interviewed so far this month falls under the umbrella of “great human who also just so happens to write dope shit”. These are all people I like, and find myself inspired by. Maybe no one so far, though, has represented that more than Bill. When we met in the summer of 2012, it didn’t take long for us to make an instant connection, and become fast friends. We’ve done poems in each other’s cities, we’ve exchanged bad jokes to the annoyance of everyone around us at impossible hours of the night. And all of this is to say nothing of Bill’s work, which attacks all of the senses in a way that I still struggle to process. Bill manages to reach into his head, and present everything he’s ever thought, dreamed, or feared to an audience. Sometimes in less than three minutes. Watching poets from other places operate in their own communities is a true sign, I think, of what they’re made of. One of the greatest joys I’ve had was to make the trip to Bryan, Texas last year and see up close how much Bill has given of himself. And how much he is respected in his own backyard. Sure, I’m glad to call Bill a friend. But those poems, too. Man. Those poems.

 

 I’ve talked a lot about origins with people this month. Where they’re from, and how that plays into the work they create. I’m overwhelmingly excited to do that with you because I’m not sure if there is any work that represents a point of origin more than yours. Texas bleeds through your work almost naturally. I find that to be a joy. How has living in the south made you the writer you are?

First off, this is really, really cool. I’m so honored to be a part of this project, to be included amongst writers that I admire, and especially to be approached by a top-notch poet and person such as yourself. So yeah, thanks Hanif! Ok, now that the gushing is out of the way, time to rant incoherently and hope I answer your questions. Here we go…

In spite of its flaws (and it has a heck of a lot of flaws) I do love this ugly, giant, ever-turning machine that is my home state. But let’s be clear: it is indeed a machine. It’s kind of a never-ending battle to carve out a home inside its unapologetic, idealistic cogs. Regardless, poetry is how I carve. Also, Texas and its aesthetic happen to be a well of imagery that I draw from generously. It’s pretty dang convenient.

Alternatively, my work is an active attempt for me to organize what is inside me and what is outside, to  get them to fit, to figure out how they keep changing places, and how it’s all really the same anyways. Basically, any physical setting that appears in my work is guaranteed to be a mirror of some internal drama or attitude in myself and/or other Southerners. What’s outside and what’s inside blur together. So in my poetry, you see me approach intangible ideas externally and internally, all at once (tada!) Since my work owes so much to this overbearing nostalgia that I carry with me, by exploring Texas and the South, it’s like I am walking through the halls of my own upbringing and through attitudes I am most familiar with. Yes. Hope that makes sense.

 One thing that your work really taught me early on was how conversations, or dialogue can work inside of a poem. The first piece of yours that I got hip to was “I Said, He Said”, where you’re having this ongoing conversation with your guilt. I’ve used that poem in workshops countless times to show how giving a voice/body to something that naturally doesn’t have those things can open up a lot of doors and spaces for good work to bloom. What influences that part of your writing?

Cool! Glad you could get some good use outta that awkward little beast.

I helped teach a couple high school classes yesterday, and I’ll repeat here what I told them: if you can take whatever big, scary, unhealthy thoughts are bouncing around in your head and fit them on a single loose-leaf paper, all of a sudden it’s not so big or scary anymore. You’ve literally removed this thing from your head entirely and put it onto the page. Now, this problem and anxiety you have isn’t gone or forgettable, but it is at least approachable. By wrapping your anxiety in poetry, you’ve attached words to it and given it a body. From there, you can take that piece of paper that is your unhealthy thoughts, and crumple it up, burn it, fold it into a paper airplane… or maybe you can read it to a room full of strangers and make real human connections with people who appreciate you for the battles you fight.

That’s where “I Said He Said” came from. It was bubbling up in my head like a fever (about half of my work starts this way), and I had to remove that irrational sense of guilt/shame from my head. So I gave it a body and a voice. And as simple as that, this abstract mess suddenly became a person I could face head on and talk back to. I could argue and reason with it. Which helps.

I also enjoy this fascination you have with history and the blues. Pieces like “An Astronaut” really combine the two in a really beautiful way. When I was out in Texas last, we had spot conversations about bluesmen we liked, and how they operated within our art. How did you gain the relationship you have with blues music?

Against my better judgment, I’m gonna talk about my dreams now (oh God, here we go…)

Ok so in my dreams, I’m usually navigating  this one sprawling city that I keep returning to. I’m going around, absorbing everything around me and it’s a lot like other cities I’ve see, but also totally different. I dunno – it’s big, and the best way to describe the sensation of being there is to say that I feel swallowed by it. I feel like a very small thing and I’m completely washed up in this dream-city-thing.

Music does that to me. But it’s more convenient because I can get that overwhelming feeling and still, ya know, stay awake or operate a motor vehicle or write or whatever. I listen to the kind of music that shows me how small I am, that feels foreign and stretches all around me. See: Teebs’ Ardour, Isis’ Panopticon, and more relevant to your question – the songs “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson and “Lonesome Dog Blues” by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

That ineffable feeling – to be swallowed up in a place I’ve never been to, and couldn’t access by any normal means – I want my poetry to do that too. I really, really wanted “An Astronaut” to do that. I hope it worked, at least halfway.

I have to give a shout out, though, to Shaan Heng- Devan for opening my eyes to Blind Willie and his story. “An Astronaut” was born as a two-person piece between us, which I’m still very proud of. His part in telling the story really offers up so much more than I could, and it was an honor to share the page/stage with him.

Speaking of the last time I was in Texas, I was honored to feature at Mic Check. Which, still, is one of the coolest features I’ve done. I even got to revisit prom, and that experience was much better than my actual prom. How did you get involved with Mic Check, and how is your role changing within the organization?

Oh man, I could go on and on about Mic Check, but I’ll do my best to keep it short. Mic Check in Bryan, TX  is the first place I started reading; it’s where, while living in Austin, I returned to every Sunday; and it’s the reason I happily moved back to Bryan. It’s a diamond in the rough and I still think that it’s one of the best if not the best, venues in the nation (but I’m biased.) I started reading there when it was 4 poets, 4 audience members, and they were the same people. But thanks to ran things before I took over, it’s grown to where we have people shoulder-to-shoulder inside the venue, people listening in through the windows, and I’ve even seen ranchhand/cowboy types sitting on the roofs of their pickups, drinking beer and listening to poetry until 1 AM. I got involved in Mic Check thanks to its welcoming atmosphere, and stayed for the people who made that possible. I wouldn’t be the writer/person I am today without them.

For the past two years, I’ve served as Mic Check’s president (we are a 501c3 non-profit), and have been in charge of hosting slams and open mics, workshops in the local community and in a local juvenile justice center, co-directing and assisting in poetry festivals such as Texas Grand Slam and Texas Youth Poetry Slam, and a bunch of other random duties. This coming June however, I’ll be preparing to depart for grad school and will hand over my position to the ever-lovely Madi Mae Parker, who I know will do amazing things with the rest of our directors. Also, if y’all haven’t met Madi, you should fix that. Yep.

I’m not sure if I have ever heard a better, more honest poem about a parent, and that parent’s aging than “Kitchenfire”. I heard it for the first time at NPS 2012, when we were just getting acquainted, so I wasn’t sure if I could ask about it in the way that I wanted to. Now that we’re a bit closer, I’m wondering what your relationship with that poem is now. So many of us at our age look at our parents, very aware of their mortality. But not too many of us write about it in that way. What pulled that out of you?

That’s high praise, Hanif, thank you!

I’ve been staring at this question for a good half an hour trying to settle on a response. I want to give you an answer that satisfies this great question and the reader, but also respects the bigness of what I’m feeling. Hmm.

Ok so: when I was 11, a giant splinter broke off a wooden handrail at school and nearly went all the way through my hand. Without thought or feeling or words, I quietly dropped my books, ran to a teacher, and had it pulled out of my skin all at once. I was more or less in shock. It was all weirdly simple and unremarkable.

That’s what this poem was. It happened because it had to. It was a realization: that there’s some giant splinter inside us called Age or whatever, and I had to yank it out, see for myself what it looks like, and show others. It was to hurtful and scary to leave alone, I had to remove it and dress it up for others to see. Images of wedding cakes, God, knives, ovens, icing, etcetera simultaneously rose in my head and I used those to wrap up and hold this intangible idea that we’re all staring at blankly.

That’s the best answer I have for you my friend. The poem really just hit me over the head, and continues to do so every now and then when I perform it – especially when I read it recently with my Dad in the audience. I was on stage, asking the questions that weigh us both down. And it was strangely comforting to sit with him in the room, and share in the quiet confusion that followed in place of answers.

We’ve talked about your writing process before, and we’ve even collaborated on a piece, so I’ve seen how you begin, first hand. It almost begins as a cluster of images, and blooms from there. With your use of images, though, there’s nothing sloppy. Why is imagery so important in your work and what makes a good image, for you?

I try to avoid from general valuations of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ anything, but I will say the images that ‘work best’ for me are those that are authentic. By authentic, I mean imagery that is presented not as subservient to the meaning/argument of a piece, as a mere tool to get the point across, but rather as complementary to the meaning. An authentic image I think is one that springs up from some dusty corner of the writer’s imagination, and can be appreciated by itself. But when a poet is able to sculpt that image in a way that, as absurd or surreal as the image might be, speaks to and is grounded in concrete reality – that is how an image succeeds.

For example, Kevin Burke has a poem that begins: “I would kiss an anchor into you / if it meant you would stay.” The first line presents a tangible, surreal image, the second (for lack of a better term) anchors it in real life. It goes something like this: “Hey, look at this cool thing that I see,” and then “Hey, this is why you care; this is why it’s important.” If your poem is a house, good imagery forms the structure, the decorations, windows, and doors; great imagery does that, while also grabbing you by the collar and pulling you into the house.

That is why imagery so important to me. I have always had an overly-active imagination and vivid dreams, but didn’t have a reason for it. Poetry has given me a way to understand the mechanics of my imagination, to give purpose to it, and, out of all this raw marble in my skull, to sculpt something worth viewing. I’m trying  to look internally and pull out something that can wipe clean the smudged lens through which we view the external world. I think I read something like that in Carl Jung book. Anyways, I like the idea that these symbols and images in my head mean something, that they carry some precious truth. I feel responsible to discover it – even if I have to wrestle the images down onto the page and force them to tell me what that truth is.

We’ve also talked about Texas, and the south in general, having this weird disconnect from the rest of the national scene, in some ways. What I have loved about bringing you out to Columbus is that you are doing some things with your poems/voice that people in the Midwest just aren’t hearing. I imagine the reactions are often like my reaction when I first heard your work. It gives kind of a permission, tells us where the boundaries are, and shows us how to go through them. You’ve been able to travel with your work. Talk about this idea of a regional voice, and the reception of what you do in the Midwest/northeast/etc.

I feel like I learned a lot just by reading this question. So thanks! To be honest, I think I have enough of an ear to pick out regional variations in style. But I don’t really have a sense of my place in that environment, how I differ or what new ideas I might be offering. Again,  the appeal of traveling for me is to feel small and overwhelmed in a new city and new poetry. So from my perspective, it’s the opposite case: I find that my own ideas of what poetry should look like become stretched and broken. I spend too much time at home self-absorbed in my own work anyways, when I’m in a new city, I like to enter with a fresh set of eyes as ears and gain as much of the local poetry as possible. I try to absorb it all in an uncritical way.  It’s as if I’m taking the camera lens off of me and pointing it outwards.

Bottom line: it’s surprises me (in a really good way) when my work is well-received in a new place, I suppose because I’m not really thinking of how I do or don’t fit into the community. I’m too busy being starry-eyed in admiration of other poets and feeling grateful for the whole experience.

We don’t have to dig deep into specific religious beliefs here, obviously. But the use of religion and religious imagery in your poems has always been really intriguing to me. In a poem like “King Cake”, you actually open up a conversation with God, in a way that I think everyone can relate to. Where does that come from? What role does religion play in your work, and how did it get to that point?

Oh man, God and stuff. Hmm. I’ll try and keep it short:

My weird and tenuous relationship with God has been, well, dramatic. My personal belief informs my understanding of the experiential world, and more importantly, vice versa. I’ve observed a lot of horrible, unfair things happen to good people in my life, things which God, as I understood Him/Her/It, couldn’t explain away or account for.  I won’t go into all the resentment I’ve felt towards God, and how I’ve had to abandon and then re-approach the whole idea again and again. I will say this however: when my understanding of God no longer fits the world and what happens in it, whenever ‘God’ just doesn’t cut it anymore, I simply stretch God and make Him/Her/It bigger. I just love the idea of God too much to let go, so I edit God as I see fit – in whatever way that will make me a more compassionate and loving person (William James’ “Varieties Of Religious Experience” gave me permission to rewrite God, and Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions” convinced me it was worth doing. I highly recommend both books.)

Poetry is how I do that. It is how I chew God up and spit It back out, reformed. And it’s all about how God does the exact same thing to me. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. I’m ok with that.

Either way, I think my more “religious” writing is accessible to most because I permit God to appear on the page, instead of tearing God out of the sky and forcing It on the page and onto others. I like to address God more or less as an idea to twisted, bent, challenged, and tested, rather than as an unapproachable and untouchable truth. And even if I address a being that my audience doesn’t believe in, I’m think I’m asking It the right questions at least, the ones my audience wants to ask along with me. When I yell at God in my own way, I could just as easily be yelling at a wall or a cat or a blank sky or whatever: it doesn’t matter who/what the recipient is. It’s the yelling that matters. Hope that answers your question!

Um. You totally just toured in Australia. Like, for real. People liked your poems enough to bring you to another country so that you could say them. TELL ME ABOUT IT.

Ah man! I’m still trying to digest all of it haha. The whole thing is still so overwhelming to me: I went to Australia because of my words. My words took me there. Like, people wanted to hear my words, and actually enjoyed hearing them, and because of that I was able to make new friends and have wonderful experiences with them and I can’t even handle all of this dumb, shiny gratitude that’s pouring out of me. My heart is slow-motion exploding into confetti as I write this. So, sorry for any typos.

I am so, so thankful for the wonderful human beings that brought me out there and reintroduced me to genuine hospitality and love. I’m grateful to remember what that looks like, and can’t wait to practice showing it to myself. It’s great to shake hands with happiness like an old friend, and feel so at-home on the other side of the globe. Australia is, and has been, approaching slam and spoken word from a fresh perspective, and work hard to treat their poets well and do amazing things with the craft. It was a privilege to witness.

(All of this is cliché and I don’t care. It was great. I look forward to returning!)

Give me your five best puns.

Ah, Hanif, my friend. Puns must happen organically, amongst friends, ideally while eating too much cheese and/or burgers and/or pizza at a diner at 3 AM. It is not unlike happening upon a baby unicorn in a wooded glen, or spying the Lord’s face burnt into Texas brisket. Puns are a gift from the heavens that I offer only to the dearest of companions. I could not, in good conscious, reveal to the general public my top 5 (our ears are too small, our minds too weak, to encounter such joyous, heavenly sounds!) But I will leave you with one of my favorites… the lush land of Punnery is my kingdom, and I am, truly, a most generous king:

“Welcome to the World Condiment Festival… Mayonnaise a lotta people here!”

 

Dude. Thank you so much. I’ll see you at the wedding, where I expect you to high five everyone, including our parents.

 

Image 

GOOD GHOST BILL MORAN was a proud member of the 2011-2013 Austin Poetry Slam national teams, as well as the 2012 & 2013 Austin Poetry Slam Champion and 2013 Southern Fried Haiku Champion. He has has co-directed the Texas Grand Slam two years running, featured at venues and taught workshops nationwide and internationally, conducted long-term poetry programs at a local juvenile justice center, as well as released four books and a CD. In the fall, he will begin pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Louisiana State University. But for the moment, he is the president of Mic Check, a non-profit poetry and spoken word organization based in Brazos County, Texas. He loves it with all his heart. Also, he is convinced he has the Gulf inside him. He appreciates your concern and well-wishes, but swears he is OK. Really.

11/30: Ten Questions With Nate Marshall

Nate Marshall

It occurs to me, now, that I could have done this series with ONLY poets who have once called Chicago home. And asked them ten questions each only about Chicago, and how Chicago has informed them as people, as creatives. I admit, I am biased as someone from the midwest, but we root for each other. And in a lot of ways, Chicago has always been the best shot we have had at the midwest being represented on a large scale. Nate Marshall is interesting to me. I’ve said this a couple of times already this month, but the true tragedy here is that I couldn’t ask Nate 20-30 questions. What really draws me to Nate, even outside of his work, is how he has risen above this idea of being frozen in once space. When a part of your younger life is chronicled, as Nate’s was as a high school student in Louder Than A Bomb, I imagine that it can be hard, as a creative, to shake that. To say Listen, guys. I love that, but I’m actually over here doing this thing now. And yet, Nate does exactly that. There aren’t many writers I have taken in who allow the pride in their roots to show so clearly and strongly on the page. This is always the best joy, really. Sure, no one can take away the fact that Nate Marshall has inspired so many people through film, and has done so much glorious work that still takes risk and reaches, and reaches, and reaches. But what excites me the most is this. Here, we have a writer who is relentless in the pursuit of defining his home on his terms. A writer who will never stop reminding us, Chicago. I’m from Chicago.

 

The thing that I know we both have in common, even without digging pretty deep, is that we both really love where we’re from. I appreciate the way Chicago is presented in your work, especially the South Side. I think writing about where you’re from with affection is one of those things that seems to be dying out, though it is something I am passionate about reading/doing/engaging in. What calls you to represent Chicago as fiercely as you do?

You know for me much of that fierceness is encoded in the traditions I am from. Chicago has a really strong tradition of writers who document, love, and exalt place. Folks like Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks were some of my early influences and the one of the things that I learned in that work is that place is one of the building blocks of personhood. Also in a hip-hop context its always important to rep your hood. That’s one of the charges I give to my work. I might feel it because I’m a part of the last generation of Chicago hip-hop heads who didn’t have somebody super famous from our city. There’s a kind of chip that Chicagoans in particular from that era carry to represent and I think that I carry even in poems. Another thing that impacts me probably is I spent a lot of time away from Chicago as a kid. Every summer I was sent away to these academic summer camps at elite universities. At those camps I was usually one of very few black males and very few kids from the hood so that made me really aware of my “Chicago-ness” and really proud of it.

 

You’ve got this natural link to Louder Than A Bomb. Just the other day, I was doing some work with high school kids in Columbus, and they were like, “Yo! We just watched Louder Than A Bomb! Nate Marshall, Nate Marshall, Nate Marshall!” and I was like, “Yeah, man. He’s published now. A lot. Read up.” And we checked out some of your recently published work. And I think they had a hard time processing the fact that they just watched someone who was (then) a kid, doing the same thing that they are, but also someone who grew into doing some of the things you are doing now. What has that journey been like for you, and I most wonder how you look back on that time? What has it been like to know that so many people initially connect with this part of you that you haven’t revisited in so long?

LTAB is home. Youth programming is home. The journey has been really interesting because I’m really where I wanted to be but not where I thought I would be by now. I’ve been really blessed to have a lot of success pretty quickly and that’s mad humbling. I still go back to LTAB every year and help host or do whatever they need. I still try to be a part of that community back in Chicago and across the nation. I’m really proud of the film Louder Than A Bomb. Its mad cool to have such a formative time of my life documented and the filmmakers did an awesome job. If anything it makes me happy because it allows me to connect with young people who might be in similar situations as I was back when. Occasionally it can be weird when people interact with me and their perceptions of me are frozen in 2008 but on the whole its been a really positive thing and it helps ground me in remembering how much passion I had for this work as a shorty.

 

Your work does a fantastic job on a lot of fronts, but the front that most pulls me in and holds me there is the way that you examine the various levels of black life. You wrap a lot of elements into your work, sometimes all at once. I said it in another interview this month, but I think artists of color have an interesting opportunity to put a lens on an experience that is not often given an opportunity to have a lens on it. What responsibility, if any, do you feel to those stories?

 

Thanks for those kind words. I don’t know if I feel an external pressure to play hood Crocodile Dundee for outsiders or anything. I do though feel a compulsion to document parts of my life and experience and those around so that we have it. I deeply believe in poetry as an artform that can speak to everybody, including and especially folks who have been told that art is not for them. I love getting love from magazine editors and poetry professors but the illest shit is when I see a kid in a high school or a dude from my neighborhood and they’ve heard me spit and they give me props because they feel reflected in the work. That’s live.

 

You’re also an MC, and I’m hoping you can talk about how those two relationships collide for you. I think that all of the best artists are more than just one thing, and a lot of greatness happens at that intersection of all of their movements. Hip-Hop and Poetry. Where do the two meet, for you?

 

I think I approach a lot of poems as an MC. What I mean is that I’m often deeply concerned with the oral quality of the work and also how inventive it is on the level of language. I’m not E-40 or RZA but I am interested in how I can bend my language to create new or unexpected meanings from words and phrases. I started writing poems and writing raps at the same time. When I was in middle school and I saw Amiri Baraka on Def Poetry and heard the song “The Blast” by Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek. Those two pieces were so emotionally active and relatable to me and they made me want to be a writer and figure out ways to connect with people on that level. I mean also I think the idea of the cipher in hip-hop governs much of my personal political and artistic philosophy. There’s nothing more democratic than the cipher and that’s what I think every art space should strive to become.

 

I’m interested to find out what went on from that moment after you were done with LTAB, and you (I imagine) realized that poetry didn’t have to end for you there. I think, with so many artists, ending a stage of their development often means they’re trying something else, or “that was fun and all, but…” However, you really committed to pursuing poetry pretty intensely. What drove you/still drives you to chase after that growth?

 

I had a really strong sense of where my passion lived. I knew I loved literature and history so when I went to college I tried to study shit that would deepen my knowledge of those things. I continued because I saw the power of the writers in the slam to move people and I wanted to broaden my ability to make that happen. When I was a kid the poet Dr. Haki Madhubuti came to my school and talked to my class. He told us not to worry about getting into a “lucrative” profession but instead to focus on our passion. He said, “Do what you love, there’s money at the top of everything.” That always stuck with me.

 

Also I’m stubborn as fuck. I’ve just been daring the world to tell me I can’t be an artist and they haven’t told me no yet.

 

I read something somewhere, where you talked about your upbringing, and the segregation of Chicago as a city. Growing up in the Wild Hundreds, but going to one of the best high schools in the state, and then going to different areas academically…to kind of play off of the first question, how connected do you still feel to your neighborhood, and also, how did all of those different experiences play into your personal development?

 

I feel connected. My mama and my sisters are still in the same house. The neighbors are still the same people. When I run across the guys I grew up with we still reconnect and show love. In a lot of ways my relationship with the neighborhood is kind of the same just because I was always getting bussed out to go to magnet schools so I always had this slight disconnect while still feeling very connected.

 

Recently, I saw you talk about placing poems in a manuscript in order, using inspiration from album intros. That shit really got me hype, because I’ve done that, I’ve thought through that process. So, I must ask. What are some of your favorite album intros of all time?

 

Damn good question. I think Nas’s Illmatic is crazy because in the first audio clip there’s shit from his first feature (Main Source’s Live at the Barbecue) and the classic hip-hop film WildStyle. That’s super fresh because he really places himself deeply in a tradition and narrative of the hip-hop Kunstlerroman (artist’s coming of age tale).

Also I love Common’s Be, Fashawn’s Boy Meets World, Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, Gucci Mane’s The State vs. Radric Davis, The Roots’s The Tipping Point, and to many others to name.

 

Speaking of a manuscript, if you CAN touch on it…when can a full length book of Nate Marshall poems be expected to drop? And what can you tell us about the chapbook you have coming out with Button Poetry?

 

Damn I wish I knew. Sending it out to some contests and publishers now and we’ll see what happens with the full-length.

 

The chapbook, Blood Percussion, is gonna be out sometime this summer or fall. It should be a good project. The folks at Button are top notch and I’m really humbled they fuck with my work. Also its gonna be dope to be on the same imprint with folks like Aziza Barnes, Sam Sax, and J. Scott Brownlee who I really respect as writers.

 

What is your relationship with slam now? Of course, my introduction to your work, in person, came at Rustbelt last year. I think that you have this natural ability to perform and command a stage, even though that isn’t really the route you have gone (at least not overwhelmingly) lately. Where do you stand with the idea of slam, as a participant?

 

I love performing. I’m a ham. I’m also lazy and don’t like memorizing poems. I feature at a fair amount of slams and host a lot of slams and I love doing that work. I’ll be doing Rustbelt again this year, which is fun. I think the slam can be a great community. I don’t know if you’ll ever see me on an NPS team or trying to do IWPS but I do enjoy the practice of working with a small group of friends to do slams like Rustbelt that you can sign up as a squad. I think I feel slightly weird about other versions of the slam because individual sports have never made sense to me. I like being able to have the squad and just go, like a pickup basketball game of poetry.

 

But maybe if one day my whole crew Dark Noise lived in one city they would fuck around and make me go out for a slam team. That could be fun.

 

 Finally, I’ve got to ask you this even though it was asked of another poet/MC this month. I’m really always excited to find out who MCs love as MCs. Top five MCs of all time. Go.

 

Damn I love/hate this question. Okay lemme try…

 

In no particular order…

 

Twista- Chicago legend, linguistic innovator, master of styles. He’s more than just fast rhymes when you check the catalogue.

Pharoahe Monch- Most creative rhythmically in hip-hop, best vocabulary

Black Thought- The most consistent MC ever. Has never put a wack verse on record.

Nas- Next evolution of Rakim, technically limited and qualitatively uneven but at his best a profound talent and super influential

Andre 3000- The only dude to convince people he was top 5 off of mostly featured verses. Possibly the most talented MC to ever do it.

Nate, thanks so much for doing this. It has been a joy for me to find your work everywhere and take it in this past year, and I look forward to everything good you have on the way.

No doubt man. Tell these people to follow me on twitter @illuminatemics and like me on Facebook. Shoutout to the Dark Noise crew. Peace. 

 

Image

 

NATE MARSHALL is a poet and rapper from the South Side of Chicago. He is an mfa candidate in creative writing at the University of Michigan and an assistant poetry editor for Muzzle.

10/30: Ten Questions With Michael Mlekoday

Michael Mlekoday

The best thing about having work that carries a reputation is when so many of those things end up being true. I found myself hip to Michael Mlekoday maybe five or six months before we first actually encountered each other. I stumbled across a couple of poems of his in a journal that I was digging through the archives on. And this drew me to ask people I knew about his work, all of them returning more links to his poems, more kind words, more recommendations. So when I finally met him, last summer, I was hoping to see him read/perform some of the work that I had gotten accustomed to reading. Sometimes heartbreaking, gently paced pieces running fists first into conversations about family, race, and privilege. What TRULY endeared me to Mlekoday, though, was the fact that the first poem I heard him read in person was this poem shit talking Justin Bieber, tongue in cheek, both bold and hilarious. I think turning a mirror on yourself and then writing down what stares back is a really honest and often ugly thing to chase. I really have an admiration for the way Mlekoday attacks race, and privilege, and even family. The way it’s often done without any other device except honesty. The way it arrives at you, says Here I am, and stays with you.

The Justin Bieber poem is also hilarious, though. Can’t take that away either.

 

I’m really pulled to talk about the way you perform first. Any interaction I have had with you has been a real joy. You are kind, generous, warm, all of those things. What I love the most about the person that you are on stage is that I feel like you take on a completely different side. One that makes me feel like I am truly watching an artist crawl into the body of his work and let it take him over for minutes at a time. You were one of the first poets I watched on stage and said, “Well, I can’t do that myself…but that. THAT is for me. That is the kind of performance I want to watch.” How much attention do you pay to what you put on the stage?

Wow, thank you! I’m surprised and flattered by that description.

For me, there are three components of a successful performer: (1) skill, (2) theatricality, and (3) approach. There are tons of more skilled performers than me, including many of my students—in terms of voice quality and vocal control, bodily control, etc. I’ll never be able to move the way Michael Lee or Alvin Lau do (respectively). There are lots of flashier or more theatrical performers than me, too, performers who can inhabit various personas or do dazzling, stunning things onstage (Airea Dee Mathews, for example). But in terms of how I approach performance, I take great care to let the text of a poem lead me, to try to replicate the tones and cadences and emotions the specific poem is going for. I had that “poet voice” for a really long time, and once I got free of it I vowed to never go back.

 

Following up with that, I’m interested in how aware you are of audience reaction. Many of us read our poems, finish them, and don’t have that curiosity. But you’ve also read to poets, you’ve read in spaces that are more quiet and intimate, due to the nature of your journey in poetry. How important is feedback to you, and what kind of feedback do you crave?

Because I started out in slam, it’s still sometimes bewildering to read to an audience of polite academics and have no idea how they’re feeling, whether they’re into it or not. Like, “that joke got two laughs. Two!”

But I’ve also been an audience member at readings where a poem blew me away and I didn’t want to make any noise about it at all. Some poems—academic or slam or page or performance or whatever—intentionally demand applause, but some just don’t, and that’s OK.

At the same time, feedback in a more general sense is important, I think. I’m not just writing poems for my own sanity or delight or whatever, though that’s definitely a part of it—I’m writing poems for the communities I’m a part of and that I came from, and I feel a responsibility to get it right.

 

There’s this idea I get, after taking in your work, that nothing is sacred. I’m not saying that you’ve ruined some idea I have of the world, in fact I love all of the messes that are built into your poems, and often left not cleaned up by the end. Your poems have this way of walking into a room, throwing the clothes everywhere, and then telling all occupants of the room to figure it out. That’s the kind of reading I crave now. Do you see your poems as work that leaves some things beautifully unanswered, or do you feel like the answers are just placed deeper?

 

If I had the answers, I’d be doing something that made a lot more money than poetry.

 

For real though, no, poems can do so much more interesting and beautiful and powerful work than simply answering questions. I want poems I can dance to or hold under my breath at a friend’s deathbed, poems as incantations, poems like paint markers.

 

You have a lot of roots in academia, and you are currently doing a lot of work maneuvering poetry through that lens. I’m wondering what your relationship is, or is becoming with addressing poetry from that angle? One that is academic, at least by the nature of how it is presented to you.  What pulled you to go this route, and what joy are you finding in it?

Performance poetry and rap actually brought me to page poetry, once I was finally able to see that all these forms were trying to do similar things. I always loved that De La Soul song, “I Am I Be,” for how it celebrated the individual self, and now I hear it in the back of my head when I’m reading Whitman, nodding to its beat, even.

There are certainly differences between page poems and performance poems—I do believe that they’re different genres with different requirements and forms—but so many of the basics are the same. The classroom and the page taught me, you know, to avoid cliché and abstraction, to think about structure and form, and all these other craft devices that are just as applicable to performance poetry.

My favorite performance poets are ones who are familiar with the page, whether they have fancy degrees or not. And my favorite page poets are ones who are aware of the poem as a bodily fact, as a fact of breath and rhythm—Ross Gay, Adrian Matejka, Nikky Finney, Aracelis Girmay.

 

There’s a sense of violence, and a thorough examination of poverty in The Dead Eat Everything, at least as I read it. I got almost the voice of a writer distancing themselves from the expectations of what an audience may think of their background. Was there intention in that? How important is it to get that message across?

That’s interesting. I’m not sure about the audience’s “expectations” of my background or whatever. Obviously I’m a poet, and I have (going on) two graduate degrees, and I’m white, so there’s all that. I’m trying to write about those things, and often failing. These days especially, I’m trying to write about race and white privilege and often failing.

 

But I think it’s deeply important to write about the ways power shapes our lives.  I don’t believe that all poems are political poems, as some very smart people do, but I do believe that all persons and identities are shaped by political and cultural forces. So identity poems—like Whitman’s and De La Soul’s—have an opportunity to discuss these forces. Maybe this is how academia has influenced me the most: I’ve been sounding smart and haven’t even come close to answering your question, I think.

I’m a white kid who grew up in diverse, working class neighborhoods. My neighborhoods aren’t The Wire or anything like that, but there are still people shooting each other there, still people starving. And most of all, people feeling like they’re not worth anything, like society doesn’t care about them. So I want to tell those stories. My privilege and hard work and dumb luck got me to a place where dozens of people want to hear or read things I write, and I don’t want to waste that.

 

Something else I noticed in that gem of a collection is family. Family really shows up in so many of your poems, and in a way that is really heartwarming for me to take in. In pieces like “Home Remedies”, or “Dictator, By Which I Mean the Mother Brandishing a Pistol with a Piñata over Her Head”, or so many others, there is this sense of home and history in your work. It’s always seasoned with a hint of sadness, I think. Of losing touch, in some ways. In what ways do you find portrayal of family/history necessary?

I guess the thing that enabled me to write this book, more than anything else, is my dad’s death. Now that my dad and his mom are gone, I’ve found that so much of our family’s story is gone, too. Nobody even remembers what my great grandmother’s name was, everybody just knows her as Baba.

So for me, writing is a way of making sure the stories I still have don’t get lost the same way, and also an opportunity to invent some kind of legacy.

 

Because we are friends on Facebook, and social media gives us a weird way to allow us to keep up with everyone’s creative output, I keep reading that you’re working on a book-length poem. Please, please, please enlighten me/the world on that. What does that process look like/when will that be complete?

It’s called I Think I’m Almost Ready to See the Ocean. It’s a letter to America that says “I love you, Stupid,” a queer coming-of-age story, a prayer for the land, a 70-page rap song.

I finished the first draft recently, and am shopping it around with publishers right now as I revise it. It was the hardest thing to write, and probably the most fun I’ve ever had, too. It’s not like I knew I was writing a book-length poem when I started, you know? It was one, three-page poem, then another, then a few more fragments, etc.

One thing I figured out, repeatedly, is that not every part of a book-length poem acts like a poem. There are sections of ecological writing, sections of history, sections of narrative. That was something that surprised me.

 

When I ask people which writers are doing work that push them right now, I’ve been amazed by nearly everyone echoing “Michael Mlekoday”. So, of course, I ask you…who are the writers who you feel give you that permission to exist/create?

I think my favorite thing to do is name-dropping my favorite writers. Obviously there’s those who came before me, who I look to as trailblazers and lock-breakers: Adrian Matejka, Patricia Smith, Karyna McGlynn, Terrance Hayes, Anis Mojgani, Jaylee Alde. In particular, I think Matejka and Jaylee are the first two poets, legitimate poets, who I saw talking shit regularly IN their work.

My three go-to books right now are Ross Gay’s Bringing the Shovel Down, Juliana Spahr’s Well Then There Now, and Quan Barry’s Water Puppets. I terms of recent or forthcoming first books: Kendra DeColo, Danez Smith, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Oliver Bendorf are all killers.

 

What I have liked so much about this project is being able to talk about regions, and scenes, and communities that are so far away from mine. Can you talk about the Midwest, specifically Minnesota, and the scene that has been built there? I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a lot of different places and experience how the poetry community flows in those places, but the Minnesota area is somewhere I’ve never made it out to (though soon!), and you were very active out there (among other places) for quite a while. What was that like?

 

When I was first coming up in the Minneapolis poetry slam scene, we sent one team to the National Poetry Slam every year, and there were just a few folks who dominated the scene. Then us college kids got involved, and everything started changing. Me and Khary Jackson started to figure out what we were doing as poets about the same time that Sam Cook and Guante and Sierra DeMulder all moved to the Twin Cities. We worked together to form a new aesthetic from the various forms and styles we’d grown up with. So the college slams (University of Minnesota, then Macalester, then Hamline and MCTC and others) became a central part of the scene. Because of that, it’s been a really close-knit community dedicated to workshopping and editing and all that stuff college kids do. And it’s that culture of communal learning, even in the midst of the competition, that led to us winning a couple championships, led to Khary and Sierra (and Hieu!) getting Write Bloody books and touring the country, led to me going to graduate school and getting my own book deal, and so forth. I owe basically everything I am to that culture.

August Wilson (who wrote much of his work while living in St. Paul) has this great quote: “Simply put, art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired.” Where we come from, the geographies and flora and fauna and dialects we grow up with, the intersections of power and oppression and privilege we experience—all of that ends up influencing us as people and thus influencing us as artists. So a working class kid from St. Paul has to write like a working class kid from St. Paul, or else they’re just lying. I recently saw that the first sentence of Hieu’s bio in some literary journal was, “Hieu Minh Nguyen is a Minnesotan.” And I was like, yeah, that’s exactly right.

 

 

I know you used to rap, so I’m really pushed to end with this question, even though I’ve ended with it once already this month. Top five MCs OR hip-hop albums of all time. If you feel moved to answer both, feel free.

 

Top 5 MCs

1. Jay-Z

2. Notorious B.I.G.

3. Rakim

4. Chuck D

5. Eminem

 

Top 5 Rap Albums

1. Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die

2. Outkast, Aquemini

3. De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising

4. Blu & Exile, Below the Heavens

5. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city

 

Mlekoday

 

MICHAEL MLEKODAY  is the author of The Dead Eat Everything (Kent State University Press, 2013), selected by Dorianne Laux as the winner of the 2012 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. He won the National Poetry Slam in 2009 as a member of the St. Paul team, and returned the following year to coach the team to its second championship. He serves as Poetry Editor of Indiana Review, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, RHINO, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Anti-, Muzzle Magazine, and other journals. He has never seen the ocean.

9/30: Ten Questions With Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett

I’m learning now, as I get more familiar with him as a writer/performer/thinker, that to see Joshua Bennett twice is to see a completely evolved artist. It is absolutely easy to find boxes for artists based off of their background, origins, and a whole lotta other nonsense. What I find to be significantly more difficult is having an ability to allow those same artists to grow and become more than what we expect them to be. What I like about Joshua Bennett is that he doesn’t give an audience much of an option to do anything other than bend their expectations. I read his work, sure. But a good portion of my consumption is spent trying to figure out how his brain got him to the glorious end result. I appreciate the urgency with which he gives us his experience, and how that spreads into his other endeavors, making sure marginalized voices are heard and given a platform. Quincy Jones once talked about Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson by saying “If you blink, you’ll miss another evolution. You’ll miss him getting closer and closer to figuring it all out.” 

What a joy to have artists/creatives like that at our fingertips, even now.

The first question I can find myself pushed to ask about is family. I really like the way that family oozes into your work. And not only family, but community and friendship. You tend to honor those things in a way that really connects on a level that isn’t built out of disposable emotion. One of my favorite things that I’ve seen is the video of you performing “Sing It As The Spirit Leads” where, prior to reading that brilliant piece, you share a very genuine and touching moment with your mother and aunt. If you could, talk about family/closeness in relationships, and how it plays into your creative process?

 

During the Q&A portion of a talk/performance I gave this weekend, a student asked me if I could imagine being a writer if I had grown up in a different household. That question was difficult to answer, mostly because I’m still working towards figuring out who I am and what I believe outside of the culture of my family. My poetry, my scholarly writing, and the interpersonal relationships I value most often feel like a direct response to the ways my parents trained me to think about the world, race and religion being the two categories that feel most salient as of late. Most of my poems are about the people I love, and I’m not always sure why. It may have something to do with my ongoing desire to pay back, in some small way, all that has been given to me since I was very young: the books, the music, the freedom to think and be strange and imagine the world as if it were otherwise. This mix of gratitude and guilt animates much of what I bring to the page. Which is all to say, I tend to think of my relationship to and with family as my work’s condition of possibility.

 

 

I visited this in my first interview that I did this month with Scott Woods, but I’ve been really excited to get your ideas on it as well. So often, I see you referred to as a “spoken word artist”, and people referring to your work as “spoken word”. And if I’m being entirely honest, I think your contributions to the craft are not only necessary, but above being placed in a box that may be easier for the general public to consume. How do you feel about any divide there may be with being referred to as a “poet”, or a “spoken word artist”?

 

I know that I literally just used a Q&A session as a point of reference, but I’m not sure how to answer this question the way I want to answer it without this story, so here goes: This past February, after a show at Macalester College with my performance collective,  an older white guy in the audience asked if there was any difference between the performance he had just seen and, in his own words, “people up there rapping.” Though I eventually answered by talking about the fact that hip-hop is its own genre with various conventions and aesthetic properties (including, most of the time, instrumentals or some other form of music, which was absent from our reading), the importance of oral poetry in various African diasporic traditions, and the problem with the deeply scriptocentric ways a lot of us have been taught to think about poetry (if it’s not on the page then it is automatically some other thing that we need a different word for), I started off my response by asking him if he would ever ask a group of white artists the same question. For me, it just seemed like our collective blackness interrupted dude’s ability to approach the work as poetry, or to see it outside of a certain way of thinking about black cultural production, which he appeared to have no language for outside of hip-hop.

 

My problem with the way terms like “slam poet” and “spoken word artist” have been deployed in my experience is that they can become a way of marking a false dichotomy between written poetry, or even “strong writing” (which gets coded as traditional, white, and requiring a certain kind of study or rigor) and slam poetry which is always already marked as overtly political, racialized, angry, and devoid of the sort of intellectual labor that marks great poets, whose proper province is, ostensibly, the written word. I’m interested in what these terms connote for those unfamiliar with poetry of any kind. What draws someone who is not an avid reader of poetry to a slam as opposed to a poetry reading at a local bookstore? What is it that folks expect of one and not the other?

 

I have always liked the idea of The Strivers Row. I’m still relatively new to the art in all of its forms, but one of the first introductions I had was catching a Strivers Row show during some downtime I had covering a band on the road. I really like thinking of the potential of collectives working and reaching for the same overall goal. How did that come together, and how much of the interaction within the group is a collaborative, art-growing thing?

 

I would love to hear more about the way you heard about TSR, in large part because I’m consistently surprised by the way folks describe their introduction to the group. For some, it happened in their classrooms in middle school, high school, or college, for others it was the BNV documentary, and still others were just looking at poetry videos at YouTube one day and stumbled across one of us, which eventually led them to discovering the larger collective.

 

The Strivers Row started back in November 2010, after I called up my manager, Latoya Bennett-Johnson, and talked to her at length about the idea of bringing together a group of poets I had met through slam (or, in Alysia’s case, at a diversity conference my senior year of high school) over the years. Carvens, Miles, Alysia and Jasmine were all good friends of mine, so the choice of who I wanted to come aboard wasn’t too difficult. I had worked alongside all of these folks in one way or another and knew that each brought a specific set of skills to the table that could do some cool work once assembled. Zora came on-board two years later, and the group was complete.

 

Interestingly enough, I would say that the “art-growing” process differs from person to person in the group. Though we all help each other edit for the page and performance, there are definitely clusters within the group that spend a lot more time with each others work depending on shared interest (several of us are actors, some of us are more interested in publishing than others, etc.), geographical location at a given moment, and so forth.

 

I’ve talked with a few poets this month about relationship with the internet. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the music on Childish Gambino’s “Because The Internet” album, but it did spark me to think of the internet in a much more unique way. What we owe to the people we interact with in that space, and HOW we interact in that space. You have a strong following, across multiple platforms. Do you feel a responsibility to give a certain type of access, or a certain type of message?

 

This is a difficult question, in part because my recent experiences with therapy have pushed me to try to open myself up to different approaches to public writing, and a heightened level of trust in my audience. What you’ll see from me soon, and hopefully have already as of late, is a willingness to share poems that touch on aspects of my life that I haven’t talked all that much about in my performance work. This includes but is not limited to my relationship to violence (poems like “Clench” and “Fade” that were recently published in The Collagist and CURA respectively) and my experience as one of four black boys in my high school’s graduating class (“Masquerade Ball” in a forthcoming issue of Callaloo). Your use of the word responsibility here is fitting, not in the least because I feel like the work demands a certain level of engagement. If I’m not going to be honest with the page, and do the hard work of self-investigation every time I sit down to write, then there’s no point in me doing this anymore. I feel like I owe that to my audience, and to myself. That is my primary responsibility: to live into a kind of vulnerability and reckless imagination that might make an encounter with my work worth remembering.

 

I once read this interview with Sam Cooke, shortly before he was shot, where he talked about what it was like to watch Jackie Wilson perform. He talked about how you could watch Jackie Wilson and truly think his entire body was on fire. I find myself reminded of Jackie Wilson when I watch you perform your work. If you catch old Jackie Wilson, like 50’s Jackie, there are moments where you almost see the work that went into the music leaving his body as he performed, and being replaced with a kind of joy. How important is your relationship with the stage?

 

Wow. Well, first I feel like I should let you know how much of an honor it is to be mentioned anywhere in the proximity of Jackie Wilson or his singular gifts. Since I was a child, he’s been one of my favorite artists (my dad always talked about him, Eddie Kendricks and Stevie Wonder when I was a kid) in part because of the joy you describe. Jackie had this way of making every movement appear effortless, it’s like dude’s whole body was pure energy in a given direction.  I love what you said here about the labor of rehearsal for that reason. So often, powerful performances like his are chalked up to something akin to natural talent, when it is often practice, and commitment to craft, that makes such singular moments on stage possible.  

 

Though I don’t think of myself as a transcendent performer (I hope to be one day, and am always working towards that end) I do think that my ongoing relationship to the stage is marked in part by my belief that it, more than almost anything else in my life, holds the potential for me to be great at something I loved deeply. That’s rare, you know? I love that the stage helped make that possible, that a dude like me who has always struggled with knowing what to say to people could get up there and speak to audiences full of strangers for a living. On the flip side, I have also struggled tremendously as of late not to use the stage as a mask, as a way of keeping at bay a lot of the more difficult, painful emotions I wrestle with on the daily. Performing brings me great happiness, but I have to constantly remind myself not to treat it like a cure.

 

The thing you have in common with my fiancée is that you’re both on track to get a PhD. I’ve seen up close how intense that process is. I’m going to ask two questions about this, somewhat connected. The first has to do with education and art. How necessary do you think it is for art and education to be able to intersect?

 

Here, I think it’s important for me as someone who has been in school without any sort of break for 23 years—which, by the way, feels weird to say aloud/render in print—to mark that I think there is a critical difference between school and education. When it’s good, I think all art is a kind of education, if we can imagine education as the process through which we come to know ourselves and the world around us more deeply. I’m interested in how we can think towards and live into ways of educating ourselves and each other that run counter to how so many of us have been trained to imagine school or what school is supposed to do. Studying, which is something related to but separate from school, is critical. If you’re a writer, you should be always be writing, and reading (though not necessarily always reading about writing), but you should also always be experiencing, right?

 

This is why I think that study groups—as well as Fred Moten’s beautiful writing on what he terms black study—are so invaluable. In the study group, one can play cards and drink and play music and learn something surprising/troubling about Hemingway all within the span of a few hours, without having to necessarily block out the social field. Formal education can be a great resource. But there are many many ways to become a more literate, empathetic person, and none of them absolutely require one to go to college or a graduate program. Still, if you think you want into an MFA program or apply to graduate school, I would say go for it. I know that the schools I’ve gone to have all helped make me a better writer and sharper thinker, and for that I am immensely grateful. So yeah. There’s that.

 

Slightly related, here’s a short, broad question that I hope will pull some good insight out of you. What are your thoughts on the evolution of black possibility? The things we’re told we can do/access?

 

The deeper I get into my dissertation research (which, briefly, is on the ways in which 20th century black authors write about their relationship to and with animals) the more I am forced to reckon with the uncanny persistence, and imagination, of diasporic peoples. Through slavery and colonization, and even now in the afterlives of both, we somehow manage to keep on keeping on. This is a central message of so many of my recent show, that is, that black writing is always already an intervention, an interruption of a historical discourse in which we were said to have no imagination, no originality, no poetry

 

Kinfolks bills itself as a literary journal of black expression. I really enjoyed the first issue and felt it more than lived up to that billing. Now, as you undertake a second issue, what can people expect from the future of Kinfolks, and do you think that there is a void being filled?

 

This second issue has some incredible work in it, and features a couple of folks who are quite literally some of the favorite writers in the world, so that’s exciting. In the future, people should expect us to defy expectations and expand beyond what one might expect from a literary journal at the level of both content and programming. This may or may not involve banana pudding, workshops, a block party, spades, or some heretofore unimagined combination of all four.

 

In a message exchange once, we talked about rebelling against the way that you came into the craft, and finding yourself feeling more in the work. That really stuck with me, because I think for many, if you’re doing it long enough, that rebellion is inevitable. Can you expand on what you meant by that, and maybe talk about how important it is to have a healthy relationship with growth?

 

My recent commitment to rebelling the approaches to writing that come easiest to me is, I think, largely due to the poetry I’ve been reading and re-reading as of late (Jamaal May, Ilya Kaminsky, Natalie Diaz, Roger Reeves, Evie Shockley, Campbell McGrath, Patricia Smith, Thomas Sayers Ellis, the list goes on and on) as this work pushed me to break away at times from my long-standing commitment to a certain kind linear, narrative poetry and just see what happens. All of these authors remind me on the regular how important it is to dwell with subject matter and approaches to craft that make me uncomfortable, ones that usher me away from what has worked in the past into something that might not be cute but demands a kind of valor. As of late, I’ve been a bit more experimental with my live sets for just this reason. . I want to discover something new in old work .I want to surprise myself every night

 

 Finally, maybe simple, maybe not. But, give me five books that have shaped you as an artist and a person.

 

Maaaaaan. Only five?! Alright. Off top, my list probably looks like:

 

  1. Race Matters (at 17, I read it every day on the way to school)
  2. Song of Solomon (1. Milkman Dead and Guitar are two of my favorite characters, all-time 2. Every time I think about The Seven Days it forces me to wrestle with all sorts of questions about ethics and the black moral imagination in the face of slavery and its afterlife)
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God (The flood scene is pretty much everything)
  4. Salvage The Bones (Jesmyn Ward is one of my favorite writers, and is able to write masterfully at the intersection of joy and terror in a way that absolutely unmoored me when I first encountered this book)
  5. Wind In A Box (I’ve seen you write elsewhere that Terrance was a big influence for you, in part because he represented a voice that helped you find your own. I can say without a doubt that all of Terrance’s work, and this book in particular, helped me work towards a deeper commitment to the page in a way that felt true and worthwhile. I owe him a tremendous debt in this regard)

 

Joshua, thank you for your time. I look forward to moving out east and building on these wonderful interactions.

 

Image

JOSHUA BENNETT hails from Yonkers, NY. He is a third-year doctoral candidate in the English Department at Princeton University, Callaloo Fellow, and member of the NYC-based performance collective, The Strivers Row. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Anti-, Callaloo, The Collagist, Drunken Boat and elsewhere. He is also the founding editor of Kinfolks Quarterly.

 

8/30: Ten Questions With David Winter

David Winter

David is really interesting to me not just as a writer, but as a thinker. Which is why, when I initially got this idea, I was really excited to reach out to him. I haven’t found too many great writers (and people) who are also active sponges, in every room they’re in. David is not only an active listener, but the way he responds to poetry really gives me so much life. I sometimes wish I could pay David to follow me around and edit my life. He has a way of really complimenting the good parts before gently shifting you in the right direction, with just a nudge (“Yeah, man. I get it, ice cream is delicious, and who can blame you for wanting to eat it five times a week! You’re young and you look good in that shirt! But, man, I got this salad for you and I can’t think of a world where it wouldn’t vastly improve your already quality life…”). I imagine he would be an expert Jenga player. And this is to say nothing of his writing, or maybe it is to say everything of his writing. I’m not sure many people I read/hear craft as cleverly and brilliantly as David does. His poems do the same amount of lifting in one minute as they could do over five minutes. If I want to build a story, and make a space for it to land, I need to block out a suite of poems. David can do it in maybe ten or fifteen lines. Very few poets give me a permission to unlock like David does. He genuinely makes the writers around him better, more curious, more hungry. Merely by existing.

 

My past history as a journalist/interviewer tells me that you’re supposed to start gently, and build up to the more “exciting” questions, but fuck all that because no one is getting any younger. I’m going to ask about what I’m most interested in first. Tell me about Luciano Serafino. How was the concept of creating these mobsters and building a world of poems around them born?

 

I first hit on the idea of writing in the voices of queer mobsters during a thirty-thirty exercise, where poets try to write thirty poems in thirty days. What usually happens to me, in the course of writing the fifteen or so poems I actually write, is that I work through all my “good” ideas and start writing out the “bad ideas.” And of course, if you grind properly, the “bad ideas”—which are really just risky ideas—end up producing more compelling work than the “good ideas.”

 

I’d loved The Godfather, Scarface and Reservoir Dogs ever since adolescence, when I really needed alternatives to the models of manhood offered by my suburban upbringing. Each of those movies examines a limit of patriarchal masculinity, a point where something’s been taken as far as it can and breaks down. And the narrative structures all come from the Greek tragedies, which evolved in part to critique the function of power in a society while celebrating its excess (which I guess seemed like the best strategy for survival as a writer at the time). So you end up with these incredibly charismatic men making really glorious mistakes—and the story is told in such a way that some viewers will focus on the glory and others will focus on the mistakes.

 

So, at sixteen, I found Michael Corleone very compelling for reasons I didn’t fully understand yet. And at twenty-six I still felt drawn to him, but I also understood that attraction more fully, and saw his limitations more clearly. For me, the Luciano Serafino poems were an opportunity to explore aspects of masculinity that weren’t—perhaps couldn’t have been—fully explored in those movies. And working with such rich source material really kept the writing process moving forward through moments when I might have stalled otherwise.

 

There’s such depth of character development in that work. I think I told you once that after hearing you read “Luciano Serafino’s Assassin” I went home and hopped on Google, thinking that it was the recounting of a true story. It strikes me, just in taking in your work, that you carefully craft your work. I think there are writers where that is so evident, just by the way their work sits, or the way it demands to be consumed. And I feel that way about your poems. What is your process like?

 

Thank you. Achieving that sense of realism without losing the lyric energy of the poem took a lot of labor. Over the last three years, I’ve done ten or twenty drafts of each of those Luciano Serafino poems, including one poem that still doesn’t feel finished and hasn’t been published. It took months to get from the first draft of the first poem—at which point Serafino didn’t even have a name—to something that felt like an authentic voice. And I didn’t have a complete draft, or an understanding of why that voice felt authentic, or an intellectual understanding of what I was doing with it, for weeks after that. And I really try to write every day, even if that just means journaling or writing a postcard to a friend or opening up drafts and reading them aloud before getting back in bed with a bowl of ice cream.

 

What thoughts do you have on revision? I think so many writers struggle with the idea of approaching something after they have pulled it out of themselves. We’ve talked a bit about this before my asking it here, but can you talk about the importance of a healthy relationship with editing and revision?

 

Revision is almost the whole game, I think, if you want to write well with any degree of safety. And I mean safety from a mental health perspective. If you take that “first word best word” bullshit too much to heart (which I absolutely did as an adolescent), you tend to either end up with a process that lacks reflection or you end up minimizing risks because of the pressure to get things right the first time. You can write well that way, but producing risky meaningful work takes a lot out of you. And I know this because I really beat the hell out of myself when I do it, and I watch my friends and my students beat the hell out of themselves too.

 

So, if you can generate or collect a bank of strategies that make revision riskier and more playful or surprising, if you can really get down to the root meaning of the word, which is “to see again,” I think that really pays off in the long run. It relieves some of the pressure from the process, and it creates more potential for the writing to serve a therapeutic function. I recently saw the poet Rochelle Hurt read, and she said something along the lines of, “I write with wine, but I edit with coffee.” I thought that was brilliant, and it’s also what I’m doing right now.

 

You really enjoy reading and listening to the work of others. Any time we’re sharing a space where poems are being read, and I happen to catch a glimpse of you, you seem to be deeply engaged. What excites or attracts you, as a listener/reader? What poems/poets are out there right now doing things that push you to re-think what is possible?

 

I think a lot of people close themselves off when they hear an argument they disagree with, or a metaphor written in poor taste, or a clumsy rhyme. And I understand that in certain situations that might be a matter of emotional self-protection, or a question of just being too damn tired, and I respect that completely. But if I’m physically in the room with another poet, I really try to listen. Because what you get out of a poem has as much to do with the quality of your engagement as the form or content of the work itself. So I try to respect the work, and I try to respect the newcomers. I even try to respect the fools—Shakespearian tragedies could have been avoided by listening more closely to fools.

 

One of the extraordinary things about poetry right now is just how many voices are entering the conversation, and bringing something new to it, and really being heard and engaging with one another. So I almost don’t know where to begin talking about poets who excite and challenge me. Right now I’m reading Corey Van Landingham’s Antidote, which won The Ohio State University Press / The Journal Award in Poetry last year, and that book really uses each page to break my heart in a different way. I’ve also been telling everyone I know about Jamaal May’s Hum since it dropped in November. And I’m really looking forward to Jericho Brown’s second book. Please felt like such a complete, cohesive statement that I’m really curious to see how anything could possibly follow it.

 

You do some work with The Journal, which is the literary journal tied to Ohio State University. Can you talk about how you’re involved there, and how it has inspired you and your work?

 

The Journal’s been around for forty years, so we receive a lot of poetry submissions, around 200-300 a month. And those are poetry submissions, not just individual poems, and not fiction or nonfiction or reviews. My current job, along with the other Associate Poetry Editor Megan Peak, is to read every single one of those submissions and winnow the field down to things that have some real element of grace or danger or mystery. This is the second stage in a three-tier process, so every submission receives at least two careful readings by our staff. But from a logistical standpoint, we have to make cuts—and that is absolutely the hardest part of the job, especially when the rejection letters go to poets I know, poets I care about as people and whose work I admire.

 

What makes the work worthwhile is stumbling on a poem that works on your body—which is really where poems do their work, I become more and more convinced—before you’re even finished reading it. A poem that makes you think “Damn, a poem can do that? What have I been wasting my time writing all these years?” That makes all the hours of reading worthwhile. And then a few months later you get to see that poem on a perfect-bound page between a couple of beautiful paintings, and you know that writer’s holding the same thing in her hands, and people around the country are having that same feeling you had when you first read the piece. That’s why we do this work.

 

You’re not from Columbus, and you didn’t get your start in poetry here. Yet you’ve really fallen in with the poetry community here quite well. There are moments where I genuinely forget that you’ve HAVEN’T been around these parts for years, just due to the amount of activity you have contributed, and your genuine desire to connect with the poets here. Did you expect to make a splash like this when you showed up here? What about the scene really made you feel comfortable after arriving?

 

I’m really touched that you think of me that way. I don’t think I had any expectations in terms of how I would be received in the poetry community before I arrived here. I knew Scott Woods and Will Evans ran readings out here—they have good reputations in New York—so I looked forward to checking out the scene, and I haven’t been disappointed. But I also moved here to go back to school, so a lot of my energy and anxiety focused on that transition, and I wanted to balance that with other kinds of poetry/community engagement. I immediately felt welcomed and supported by the poets I met here, and by you in particular, so I tried to reciprocate that warmth and vulnerability. And I feel really privileged and really thankful to be able to do that.

 

Something I think you’ve been able to do, merely by existing, is help push forward this idea that there really isn’t this wide, unbridgeable gap between “slam poets” and “academic poets”. That is something I feel passionately about, this making sure we slow down the train of thought that tells people the worth/value of poets based on what their background is. How important is it to bring those worlds closer together?

 

I think you’re right that this gap is closing, although I think that’s really happening because of cultural forces much larger than myself. The academy’s an old system that functions through big clunky bureaucratic structures, whereas the slam is a relatively young network of grassroots organizations that have developed very quickly. So it’s taken time for conversation to develop across that divide, and that conversation isn’t always easy because it involves differing perspectives on questions of poetics and power and privilege. And it’s possible to identify particular poetic forms or conventions associated with each of these groups, but when we let the conversation stop there we aren’t really dealing with the larger questions, and we’re not really moving the conversation forward.

 

As for the importance of that conversation, I’m not sure what I can say except that it has been critical to my own development as a writer, to my development of a queer identity, and to my belief in the radical potential of the classroom.

 

So many of your poems really take me on a journey of well-paced imagery laying the foundation for really weighty topics/experiences. The best example I can think of is “Storyboard” which has a real beauty in how it sets up this scene of a conversation about trauma and survival. Even more impressive, to me, is that you tend to be able to do this in such little physical space, with so few lines. As a writer, or a poet, or a storyteller…what responsibility do you feel like you have to the way you present the stories you tell?

 

This is a question I think about a lot, especially with a poem like “Storyboard,” where the poem acts as a conduit for a story that really isn’t mine to tell. One of the basic functions of narrative is appropriation, for better or worse, so every time I tell a story I try to ask myself honestly who else has a stake in it. And I try to write the poem in a way that fully respects those individuals, which in the case of “Storyboard” meant writing lines like “I do not want to project” and “these are not her words” directly into the poem.

 

I think that poem works with so few lines because the silence or white space operates as an image, or a set of images, in itself. The em dashes, the long lines and the stanza breaks shape that silence differently than in the poems in Safe House, for instance. It’s a poem about the strength required for a survivor to tell her story, and it’s also about the speaker’s inability to make metaphor or drama out of the story, to process or transform it into anything other than what it is. I spent years trying to figure out what to say about that story, but in the end it rarely matters what men say about rape. Or it matters too much, and in the wrong way. But it does seem to matter when we listen.

 

Your chapbook Safe House was not only an impressive introduction to your work, for me, but also kind of something that made me feel like I instantly wanted more. Like a dope trailer to a film I’ve been waiting for, even. So I’m curious not only about the process/concepts behind Safe House, but I’m also more curious about what’s next. I find that when I finish one set of poems, there is a quick bloom that comes forward, new things that demand to be written. Or at least attempted. Is that something you’re finding?

 

I’m thrilled to hear that Safe House had that effect on you, because writing that chapbook took three years of my life and a whole lot of heartbreak. But it’s a bit tricky to isolate how completing the manuscript affected me because it also lined up with other transitions in my life. I wrote those poems while I lived in New York City, during which time I came out as queer and really fell in love with teaching. Helen Vitoria and Ocean Vuong, my editors at Thrush Press, accepted it for publication the night before I moved to Columbus for grad school. I read the acceptance letter while sitting on a stack of moving boxes, preparing to leave my friends and lovers and my creative community behind, geographically if not spiritually.

 

During the year and a half I’ve lived in Columbus, my projects have been determined to some extent by the structure of Ohio State’s MFA program, which has meant producing at a steady rate and under constantly shifting constraints without necessarily thinking in terms of a larger body of work. But this coming year, which will be my third year in the program, the goal is to write a thesis—meaning a full-length book of poetry suitable for publication—so, to answer your question directly, what’s next is constant terror.

 

I’m half joking about that—I look forward to the work, and I’m really grateful that I’ll have the support of two amazing writers on faculty here, Kathy Fagan and Jen Schlueter. But please don’t ask about my career plans. For real.

 

Finally, I wanted to talk about the literacy narratives project that you helped head up here in Columbus, with the assistance of some of your classmates. It was a real joy to be a part of, first of all. But also, since we haven’t spoken about it at length since it was completed, what were some takeaways you had individually from working on that project, and why did you feel it was a necessary/important thing to do?

 

This project has involved contributions from so many extraordinary individuals including yourself that it would be impossible to sum up here. Last fall I co-led a group of students who interviewed nineteen black poets about their writing and their lives as part of Professor Cynthia Selfe’s Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project. I was really struck by the generosity and vulnerability displayed by everyone who participated in the project, and to be perfectly honest my head is still swimming from all the things I learned during those interviews.

 

I really only got involved because I wanted to get out of the classroom, and off campus, and meet a more diverse group of writers. But as that first phase of the project concluded, I actually began to realize that I’d just scratched the surface of where it could go. So I’ve continued interviewing poets, and I’ve been reading the relevant literature, and I’m working on an article about what college English teachers might learn from black poets who write and build community outside of the academy. So I actually think of this as a project that I’m still just getting started with, rather than something that’s finished.

 

And one big takeaway for me has come from learning about the history of leadership by black poets in creating a thriving grassroots poetry community here in Columbus, and how much work has gone into making that a safe space for people of color to write and listen and perform. And I want to emphasize that I think about that work in terms of literacy, that it has to do with finding or furthering or taking ownership of a language to reflect on race and on experience more broadly, and creating a community that challenges one another to think critically through language. That’s been incredibly valuable for me as an educator trying to figure out how to open up my classroom for more honest and open conversation, and trying to create a space where my students can push one another’s thinking forward while keeping our focus on language.

 

David, thank you for doing this. What your presence in Columbus has done for the work of many poets here can’t be put into words and I hope we can catch up soon.

 

Thank you! Also, I hope you and Laura will come over for dinner some time soon.

 

Image

 

DAVID WINTER wrote the poetry chapbook Safe House (Thrush Press, 2013). His poetry also appears in Atlanta Review, Union Station, Four Way Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and other publications. He is an MFA student in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University, where he has taught creative writing, professional writing, and composition. He is also working on a literacy research / oral history project about the writing and lives of black poets in Columbus. You can read David’s poetry and watch his interviews with black poets at davidwinter.net.

7/30: Ten Questions With Rachel McKibbens

Rachel McKibbens

All of the good things you hear about the work of Rachel McKibbens are true. I think that is a simple enough truth that anyone who encounters her work will find out on their own quickly. I am really invested in writers who give us not small bits of themselves in their work, but almost all. Huge pieces. No part of themselves uncommitted. Not only does Rachel do that but she does it with the promise of I survived. You can, too. What I have always found more important (and in some ways, more impressive) than the poems, though, is the Rachel who stands up and fights. For survivors, for those overcome with grief, for a balance and a righteousness in any space she claims as a community space. I’ve always found her to have such a kindness that shows up in her work in just the right places. And one that also shows up in any interaction I’ve had with her. Most of all, Rachel has shown so many of us what it is to come down from the mountain, join in, and try to move it together. Even when it seems to barely be making a dent.

 

 I just completed reading Mammoth, for the third time. I’m finding that I read your work differently as I get older/get closer to things I fear. I find myself sitting with the work more, really letting it fully be digested. It occurs to me now that I think you maneuver grief, and the process of grieving in a way that is oddly comforting for me, and I’m sure others. The way you present really large tragedies, from every imaginable angle, allows sadness and grief (and then healing) a kind of permission to bloom. Is that something that you reach for with intention, or even something you feel after the work is done?

 

I like the use of the word “maneuver” in your question, because it is what we are doing every day of our lives: maneuvering. It isn’t hard to decipher that a large portion of my writing is in response to some kind of loss and that language is how I react. Poetry is the move I make.

In the last four years, I’ve lost a dozen people who were dear to me, and most were all without warning. Freak accidents. Rare illnesses, one after the other. There were so many deaths, I shut down, and did not tend to myself properly. I realize, now, I didn’t give myself time to allow grief to figure its way through me. I compartmentalized and moved on. I avoided it.

My niece Ingrid’s death was the last proverbial straw for me. I knew, if I didn’t acknowledge and share this sorrow, I was going to be severely harmed by it; there was a chance my brain would not come back. The thing about grief that not enough people tell you is that you have to share it. You have to give some of it away, or you will suffer in profound and unfathomable ways.

Every poem in Mammoth was written in some kind of grief-altered state. My only intention was to show how visceral and necessary the mourning process is and the ways in which I, personally, chose to steer through it. I am not a valiant narrator. I reveal a lot of ugliness about myself during those desperate months. And I think that’s important. Healthy, even. To me, death is a language, so really, our only job is to present its many definitions.

 

This past summer, I managed to get my hands on the documentary Slam Planet, which tracked you and the rest of the Urbana Poetry Slam team as you all prepared for the 2004 poetry slam. Immediately after it finished, I found myself curious and excited to ask about your roots in slam, especially since my first exposure to your work (as a spectator, 2011’s Rustbelt) was in a slam setting. What were those first few years of you slamming like?

 

In 2001, I started writing poetry (shortly after a dear friend died.) I’d read at open mics for several months and then a slam started at this awesome gay bar in Long Beach, CA. I attended and judged a few, then decided to give it a shot. I was an athlete growing up, so I’ve always had a competitive streak. And I was also in theater my entire school life. So the combination just seemed really fun.

 

I was a pretty divisive writer. My poetry did not accommodate the typical slam-winning themes. I’d pull 2’s and 10‘s for the same poem. As I became more confident in my writing, I became a more successful competitor. (I should note that the couple times I was the least prepared to slam were the few times that I actually won.)

 

The scene was much different back then. I mean, all the underlying social problems were the same, but the internet was still pretty new. People weren’t concerned so much with YouTube hits and whether pissing someone off in a Facebook thread could damage their touring career.

 

I think a common thread in all of these interviews will be examining the way activism plays into the poet as an artist and (more importantly) as a person. There’s fearlessness in the way you organize, support, and hold those who need it, at the right time. What drives that? 

 

 

I’ll be honest – most of my activism is born entirely FROM fear. I’m scared every day I wake up. This country is fucked up, and the poetry scene is reflective of its culture. Bottom line: I am a mother and I want to leave this place in better shape than how it was in when I first got here. At the rate it’s going, I’m not sure that is remotely possible.

 

Also, I have noticed over the years that friends of mine who have endured trauma tend to grow up as adults who have an undying need for justice. I can’t see something wrong go down and not want to right it. It’s my nature.

 

Kind of on the back of that, I wanted to pick one of the things you’ve organized to ask you about. And while the monthly series you curate in Rochester, Poetry and Pie, is really intriguing…I wanted to dig a little more into Pink Door. How did it start, why is it important, and what is the future of it?

 

(this question was answered on Richard Blanco’s blog a couple weeks ago: http://richard-blanco.com/2014/03/permission-to-make-noise/)

 

When having these discussions with poets, I’m really interested in finding out how aware they are of their impact. And yours is not only far reaching, but diverse. I have been in spaces where your work and workshops really carve out a space in hearts belonging to people of all ages. You’re adored by teenagers almost in the exact same way you are by adults/your peers. Do you have an audience you aim for? Do you ever find yourself surprised when someone approaches you and says “Hey. Thank you for what you do.”?

 

 

GAH. This is the freak-me-outest question of all time. I’ll just say that I am aware of my impact on some level, but I imagine it being a lot smaller than you are insinuating. I didn’t know until very recently that anyone was listening, and now that I do know, I am a lot more cautious with what I put out there. Let’s be real for a minute. Most bitches are too soft; I was raised by convicts, so I am blunt and will clown you, hard. When I first joined Facebook, I learned that the hard way. But I digress…

 

Now, as an educator, I’ve always connected best with anyone who has outrun the bad hand they’ve been dealt. Survival is its own culture, and survivors recognize fellow survivors pretty easily. We speak a different language. We hold our bodies differently and we tend not to mince words. There is an urgency in us that is extremely clear. These are the people my poems are reaching for.

 

Into The Dark And Emptying Field was, in some ways, frightening. I didn’t find myself afraid to read it, of course, but there were all of these small nightmares in there, constructed so well. On first read, it hit me harder than most everything I read last year. I remember it being really sharp in its depictions of loneliness.  What was behind the process of putting that gem together?

 

I have always been fascinated by people who do terrible things to others. There were a couple years where it became an unhealthy obsession for me, back when I first moved to New York city and was alone most of each day. I think so much of our bad behavior stems from the anxiety of being alone. Solitude can be comforting when it is deliberate, but when it isn’t, it is a dangerous beast. The people depicted in ITD&EF are all based on people I have known and they all have one thing in common: they do not want to be rejected, and are willing to sink to horrifying lows to avoid it.

 

I was extremely close to my mother as a child, and due to that, I find a connection with art that portrays motherhood in a very real, touchable way. I think of a piece like “Poem for Three Dead Girls of Last Summer” (among many others), and how you layout the truth behind love leading to fear. How important is it to portray the realities of being a mother (or even being a daughter) in your work?

 

I will live my entire life not knowing what it is like to be close to my mother. Growing up motherless shaped who I am as a caregiver to my children. It is a lot of work to be present and safe for my babies, especially when my own personal history with family is clouded in such violence and loss. I’ve always resented how the maternal instinct is assumed. For some, it is a foreign language they will never have the tongue for. The way I have lived is a reality rarely depicted by the media. My mother was/is mentally ill. She was raised in an extremely abusive household. She was incapable of taking care of me and my brother. This does not make her a bad person just as it does not make me a pitiful person. Quite simply, I have never been her daughter and she has never been my mother. Not everyone can grasp this concept. Hell, some days I can’t either. So I work it out through my writing. On page, I actually have a relationship with the woman. I speak to her often. I can even dare to love her at times.

 

Coming back to another slam question. My first REAL experience taking in your work from a slam perspective came during 2012’s Rustbelt, when you summoned that UNREAL Flesh & Blud team to Columbus. Being quite literally a complete rookie and having to bout against the four of you was one of the true joys of my first year doing this whole thing. I have more conflicting feelings about the space now. There’s a part in the film Almost Famous where Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs tells the kid, “you’ve come along at a very dangerous time for Rock n’ Roll”. In so many words, I heard similar things from “veterans” my first year in. With that in mind, will you ever get out there again? Is your work in that area done? Will you please bring another Flesh and Blud team to Rustbelt sometime?

The 2011 team was our response to the dizzying gender imbalance in the sport. Poets Laura Yes Yes & Emily Rose asked me if I wanted to be a part of it and of course I jumped at the chance. I’d never been on an all-woman team. There’d been a few that competed at NPS, but they were, and still are, painfully rare. Aricka Foreman and Gypsee Yo rounded out the team and we had an extraordinary time. I called it Team Fire in my head. The 2012 team (me, Emily Rose, Megan Falley & Marty McConnell) was Team Nuance. I would totally bring another all-woman team to Rustbelt, but I’d only coach. I love coaching. And it’d open up a spot for another woman to join, so that’s all gravy.

 

Who are the writers who still push you in the way that you’ve pushed so many?

 

Robert Lashley, Stevie Edwards and Sam Sax. BOOM.

 

Straight up, though. I love delicious things. So, with that said, I am fascinated by your relationship with desserts. I’ve had friends go to Poetry and Pie (and Pink Door), and come back raving about the treats. So, if you’ll forgive me for ending with a fluff question, I find myself called to ask what the most unique and/or inspiring cake you have ever come across, or made, or attempted to make is?

 

I rarely eat any of the things I actually bake, but the last thing I made that knocked my own socks off was a strawberry blackberry pie. It was so simple, yet had this spark to each bite. I also did a coconut milk wash on the crust that added a little glitter. That said, Poetry & Pie Night is not limited to just pies. Since it’s a potluck, people bring all kinds of amazing baked goods. The history of dessert fascinates me. During the Middle Ages, sugar was so expensive only the upper class could enjoy it. And also, the Mexican in me LOVES how foofy and rose-adorned desserts get to be, like one big quinceañera dress.

 

 

Rachel, thank you so much for doing this. Thank you for your work, both on the page, and in the necessary spaces that have nothing to do with writing. Hope to see you soon.

 

Image

 

RACHEL MCKIBBENS is a 2007 New York Foundation of the Arts Poetry Fellow, a Pushcart nominee, and the 2009 Women’s Individual World Poetry Slam champion. She has read her work at universities, schools, galleries, and various other venues across the nation. She teaches poetry and creative writing across the country at all levels. An ex-punk rock chola with five children, Rachel lives in upstate New York with writer Jacob Rakovan and their five children. She is the author of Pink Elephant (Cypher Books, 2009) and Into the Dark & Emptying Field (Small Doggies Press, 2013)

6/30: Ten Questions With Omar Holmon

Omar Holmon

I have such a deep appreciation for Omar’s work, and how it finds me. How it really seeks out different ways to cope, move, feel, express. On one hand, I think it may be easy for some writers/performers to shrug off the use of humor, but Omar truly crafts it to fit his purposes. I’m one for turns in a poem, sure. But I like my turns to happen without me knowing they’re happening. I don’t need to be thrown around a curve as much as I need to be gently pushed. I need another hand on the shovel, pushing me to dig. There are levels to Omar’s work that I think often don’t get the attention they deserve, so it was a real joy to get him to break out of his shell a bit. More importantly than that, and I truly believe this is true, no one is a bigger listener and appreciator than Omar is. I don’t ever want that to go unnoticed. He is here for the work of others, and that brings me such a great joy, as well.

 

This is really tough because I only have ten questions, and you’re someone who has a lot of moving parts, as far as what your work does, and the role it plays. Obviously, so much of your work has humor as a starting point. Because you’re just an organically funny/animated person, I imagine there can almost be an expectation when an audience consumes your work. But, because there’s #LEVELS to this, can you talk a bit about what else you place into your work that isn’t always seen?

 

Foremost I hate talking about myself dude… so you better appreciate this shit.

I think there are a lot of references to science that I put in my work that most don’t catch.   That’s the root of it but that’s like the multiple Russian dolls inside one another or the inception dream 4 levels down beneath the jokes that not everyone reaches.

 

On the back of that, you have poems that navigate loss really effectively. One thing we have in common is that we have both lost a parent, and we both place that in our work. However, I often find myself a bit envious of the way that you frame using humor as a coping mechanism. Often times, I think that’s something that we’re still told to shy away from. How important do you think humor can be to the healing process?

 

Peter Ustinov said, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious” and that makes the most sense to me.  I’m not the “let’s talk about it” type. I bury shit. However, loss and death aren’t so big that they can’t catch the fade via jest either. If we’re joking about it we are taking power away from the damage and acknowledging it as well.

 

So it might not be healing or coping but just breaking even. My mother said I had a great ability to see the humor in anything which gets me in trouble more often than not. So I stay true to that in my art regardless cause that’s what’s true to me and thank (insert your preferred deity or religion)  it just so happens to not be the norm.

 

You’ve been deeply involved in the New York poetry slam scene for a lot of years now, and you’re currently hosting at Urbana. With your role consistently evolving, where do you see the NY scene going over the next few years? And, though this may be somewhat loaded, do you see yourself still there?

 

Hands down it can go without saying that NY scene was straight Battle Royale in terms of slam. Cats would come up here thinking they goin cop them body bags and wound up lookin like a life alert commercial. Man listen, it used to be like playing Street Fighter II and goin to any of the NY venues and test your mettle like 1992 Ryu going to the USSR to see what them fists do against Zangief.

 

It’s not like that anymore, mostly cause the folks that made it that way aren’t here anymore or gone off into other things. Now it’s a changing of the guard, transitioning with younger / newer people coming in as the regulars. This is their time now. I don’t see myself in this scene; I had my era and it’s just about time to give the baton pass.

 

 

The thing that I think your work does has a lot to do with creating a level of self-confidence and comfort in a listener. In a weird way, sometimes I think when I hear people talk about your work and only say “it’s so funny!” I want to be that guy who jumps up and down and says, “NAH, GUYS. LOOK. THERE’S MORE TO IT”. Do you think about the messages that come through strongly in your work as you write, or is that not part of the process?

 

I can’t tell you the number of times someone yells out from the crowd “make me laugh” as if that’s some kind of fucking compliment. The contrast of that is being asked to read because everyone has been so serious and the audience needs a break. So these are the two borders I’m stuck between for whatever message I have to convey. No matter what I say it’s going to fall between people that just want to laugh and know I can do that for them or for people that are glad to have a break from the norm and are acceptable to whatever different I have to bring. They will appreciate the message even if there isn’t one because the performance broke the norm and gave them their catharsis.

 

I honestly can tell you there isn’t always a message. Sometimes it’s really just some shit that I find fucking hilarious inside my own head but for the pieces that do have a point I make sure it’s never me preaching, force feeding, or talking at people. I make sure it’s relatable and as close to the way I am in an actual conversation as can be.

 

I feel like the way you address race when you do is really important, and somehow plays into that “being comfortable with who you are” message that tends to bleed through in what you create. Something about what you present breaks down a lot of stereotypes about what blackness is, or can be. Much like the last question, how much does an examination of race play into what you’re attempting to present?

 

I feel like I never mentioned race up until recently in my work. My thinking when I was starting out was not wanting to give what was expected of me (The black poet doing poems about being black) unless it was just a diversion to fuck with what an audience thought was coming. Me playing of the stereotype or pigeon hole you think you have ready for me. Now however after a lot of change, growth, (no fucks left to display) and looking at the country we live in I’m like “ I don’t give a fux, we goin talk about this race shit nerd wise, dating wise, and just trying to live in America without being gun down or beat down wise” because this is the reality of the situation.

 

You’re genuinely, like for REAL about that nerd shit. You’re not a tourist out here, you’re truly an architect. I was joking with someone a while back about what they called “nerd gentrification”, or this idea of nerds becoming cool in culture once again. Any thoughts on that? Do you wan’t people to get off your lawn?

 

I talk about this with my brother a lot cause growing up for us. It was like some civil nerds right era shit man. Cats saying “you’re not black cause you like comics, dress this way, and listen to this music” (it ties into the nerd shit) but now… nerd is so chic. On some “lemme rock these obnoxious size frames” or “Yea I’ll wear this Green Lantern Shirt That I bought already faded so it looks retro not knowing the name of any of the fucking 7,200 of them”

 

Fuck those people. That’s my thinking Fuck All Yall Muh fuckas. If you like batman and you got a batman shirt on cool (personally I think bruce wayne is a fuck boy but hey that’s me).  If you rocking a flash shirt and I ask you who is your favorite just be able to tell me. That’s all I ask.

 

What naughty by nature say? “If you aint from the hood don’t talk about the hood”. Well Negus if you aint read the comics then don’t talk about the comics. I’m just saying.

 

How did “Black Nerd Problems” come about, and tell the uninformed masses about what it aims to do.

 

Through Will Evans all things are credible. He really had an idea for likeminded ethnically nerdy individuals and he really gathered folk together on some Avengers shit man. He Luke Cage’d this whole clan together on some Mighty Avengers shit (good book yall should read it to get the reference). As far as aim I think it’s going to be like a lighthouse for poc nerds (others as well) to say “hey there are women and men that look like me or are different like me talking about what I like” which is hard cause there isn’t much of that representation.

 

Now the flip side of that and I’ll use marvel as the example cause they been doing a lot with diversifying their characters for the times. I got into a conversation about T’challa The Black panther (marvel hero) with Thuli Zuma who pointed “Africa has at least 55 sovereign nations why is he from the made up place of Wakanda while Captain America gets to rep non fictional America?” Shes right. Even tho we are starting to see more ethnic heroes there still a misrepresentation present that we’re still waiting to be addressed. 

 

The Black Nerd Problems site is a place where we can get all that out, talk about it, aaaaaaaaaand review comic books and video games so we can get these Ign passes b.

 

What about a book? Why am I not holding a full book of Omar Holmon poems, musings, rap lyrics, and directions on how to send the best provocative photos to a consenting partner? Is this a project on the horizon, or is the idea of being published in that fashion something that doesn’t really get you excited?

I really never thought about books like I dunno…. Didn’t think it was me or whatever  I have no real answer as to why I didn’t do then but I can give you the answer on now…

 

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz MADE me write a manuscript. The heart of it is done. Now she had me go back into it with a twist which I don’t want to say what that is however I will say that it moves like you’re reading through a mash up of Street fighter II and Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

 

I think a flipside to the fact that you’re on the board of directors over at Team Terrible is the fact that you’re also a very vocal fan of your peers, which I always enjoy, knowing how much you’ve seen. Who are the people pushing you now? The artists you watch and get excited about?

 

No one is going get me man cause I get influenced by what I’m reading in comic books. That’s my poetry man. Matt Fraction, Geoff Johns, Brian Michael Bendis, J. Michael Straczynski, Al Ewing, to name a few. Music wise Homeboy Sandman above all things gets my head in the right space  and poet wise I’ll go William Evans (a given of course he paid me to say this) Robbie Q Telfer, Nicole Homer, Falu, Big Mike.

 

If we are talking currently well scene wise this year its all the new kids on the block man I gotta give it to Crystal Valentine, Olivia Gatwood, Nina Belen , Mcpherson, Anthony Ragler, and the man that will take the baton from me Usman Hameedi. These people were and have been creating a reign with their work this season.

 

 In as detailed fashion as possible, tell everyone reading this why you do not, and will not ever fuck with J. Cole.

 

I hate that guy man. I bet he is a nice person. Taking care of his family and shit. Like gives back to his community and shit. But….I…I…I just look at him and it feeeeels like he murdered my brother or just wronged me in another life, maybe he cut in front of me in line in another life, ate the last slice of pineapple and peperoni pizza in another life, maybe we were roommates and the mutha fucka didn’t do the dishes in another life, maybe muh fucka hit my car and didn’t leave a not in another life, I for real don’t know but I just can’t with this guy.

 

Sometimes I download his songs just to give myself the pleasure of deleting them, sometimes I keep them on my ipod listen to them as a way of taking my hate to the gym,

 

Omar, genuinely. Thanks for doing this. I hear there’s a good chance I’ll be seeing you in Detroit soon. I look forward to it.

 

Image

 

OMAR HOLMON is a New Jersey native as well as a Rutgers graduate Majoring in English. Omar started competing in slam poetry in 2008 and since then he has become a four time Grand Slam (2008, 2009) Loser Slam Grand Slam (2009), Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe Grand Slam (2010), and Urbana GrandSlam champion. He has been on the final stage at the national poetry slam and has opened for performers including Saul Williams, Amiri Baraka, and Sonia Sanchez. Omar is the only man alive to punch the planet Jupiter in the face and also as of five minutes ago discover three new species of ferns all of which he did not just make up to fill space in this bio.