Interviewed by Kelsey Duchesne
This week, THINX is hosting VagVoices: A Night of Spoken Word. As soon as our 6 talented poets signed on, I knew I wanted to chat with them for this weeks Undie The Surface. Meet the poets that you can see LIVE on Tuesday, May 3rd!
Your poem “Like, Totally, Whatever” was in response to a Taylor Mali poem, and received viral success and praise. What made you think to write this poem?
A lot of things led up to me writing this poem. I think mainly there was one incident where I was talking to a friend at the Harvard book store and an old, white customer interrupted us and said “Why do you talk that way? I don’t understand why girls talk like that these days. My daughters don’t speak like you.”
That wasn’t the only time that that happened. Many English teachers and professors have picked at my language. I have always wanted to be a writer, so that was a bit debilitating to me at times. It made me quieter for a while. “Speak with conviction and confidence! But in some ways that can translate to “Speak like a man. Speak like a hyper-educated college man speaks.” Even now, there is a lot to digest about up-speak, where it comes from. It can come out of a fear. In my poem, I talk about how it is a defense mechanism, to be afraid that you could be cut off. There is still a lot to talk about in terms of language and how it is gendered.
What is up next for you?
I have a book out called PLASTIC PAJAROS, which centers a lot around family and identity and womanhood. I’m also doing an event on July 4th called “Reclaiming America” for Button Poetry, and I’m going to be a counselor at a slam camp through Indiana University. Olivia Gatwood and I are doing a summer tour as well called TEXT ME BACK. We want to take back the pre-notion of the “crazy girl”, and reclaim it. It’s all about women and technology and being a disaster in a cute way and FUCKING TEXT ME BACK! What the hell? It’s in June.
QUICK-FIRE QUESTION: What movie makes you cry?
Me, You, and Everyone We Know. I watch it once a year when I need to cry and I don’t understand exactly why I need to cry. It’s directed by Miranda July and about how everyone is so lonely but that’s ultimately okay because we’re all a little lonely? I could honestly cry now just thinking about it. In a good way.
You can learn more about Melissa here.
Do you have themes within your poetry?
I think that it's unavoidable to not tie in aspects of your identity in your work. I don't think I intentionally write poems about gender, but it’s highly affected every situation that I've ever been in, so it’s there. For example, I write a lot of poems about having my period- it’s something I get every month, at one time it was a source of shame, for the first half of my life I waited for it and then it came and then subsequently all of these other things followed it. My period can be personal and political and all of these things. Girlhood, specifically the age of 13 I always come back to as a time in my life that is potent with poetry. I’m not sure when that well will run out, but for now it’s still giving.
What’s up next for you?
I am going on tour with Melissa Lozada-Oliva and it’s called TEXT ME BACK. Melissa and I are really inspired by girl culture. We think it's interesting and bizarre how teen girls can get written off so easily- how society is so quick to mock their interests. We appreciate girl culture so much and want to reclaim the stigma around being girls. I will also be a camp counselor for slam poetry at the University of Indiana.
QUICK-FIRE QUESTION: Where is your very favorite place?
There is a wall next to a neighborhood I lived in overlooking a tennis court in Trinidad. Sitting on the wall- that is my favorite place.
You can learn more about Olivia and see her work here.
What is your writing process like?
I internalize things often, and it's challenging for me to unpack things unless I am able to write them out. Sometimes it's pages and pages of writing, sometimes it's a short story, other times it comes out as a poem. When I go on stage, I have topics I want to talk about, but I like incorporating it with interests or pieces of media that the audience can relate to, because it helps them digest and hopefully they will walk away feeling like they’ve learned something, or seen a topic from a different perspective. It's not my job to change your mind, but hopefully, I’ll open it.
Tell me about your role as a teacher.
Today I teach a program called 123 Rap and our students are French and learning English through music, hip hop specifically. I teach as young as 4 year olds to my oldest student at the age of 87- it's incredible how similar the teaching process is. I do creative writing, spoken word, slam poetry, and English as a second language. It's been the best thing I've ever done- being able to use my passion and share with others. I know all my students can learn English- I am there to simply help them access it.
QUICK-FIRE QUESTION: What is your favorite book?
Where The Wild Things Are. I have a love for what it is to be free and what it is to be yourself, and the book solidifies that love for me. That whole book, you go through happiness, joy, fear. This boy is a little boy in a costume- and in real life, we don’t always realize we’re wearing one, but we are- we’re very much like Max. But we do change in different situations, we wear different costumes in work, with our friends. The book is so empowering to me. It's so simple and complex at the same time.
See more of Roya's work here. :)
You were one of the founders of Poetry Teachers NYC. How did your poetry school come to be?
I finished my MFA at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and returned to New York. I befriended a man who had a tango dancing business, and I really appreciated his business model. I thought “I want to do what he’s doing, but for poetry,” and he helped me out. The best piece of advice he gave me was “name your company exactly what it is- it’s good built-in marketing.” I had an old laptop and started working on mission statements and program layouts and made a website, and soon enough former peers of mine from Naropa were reaching out, asking to teach at my school. It was so exciting! 2 teachers came on board with me and we started teaching classes and performing together. I’m teaching a class called “Just Be Yourself” throughout May.
Does your poetry writing process merge with your songwriting process for your band, Rocco And Lizzie?
For me, all of the songwriting is based on stories- things I’ve heard and absorbed while writing. My poetry is note based- I keep a journal with me everywhere, I keep it on my desk at work, I write on the train. I also consume so much media through work and in my personal life, and all of that kinda simmers and occasionally finds its way into my writing. Writing is definitely a discipline and a lifestyle, and not really a hobby for me.
QUICK-FIRE QUESTION: Who is your favorite author?
Joan Didion. She is a women who wrote from the 50’s to the present day. I wrote my thesis on her- about her political persona. She has a lot of personal, emotional, and internal conflict, and infuses her writing with a lot of journalistic qualities. You get her first person perspective and it brings a lot of self reflection. I think she's one of the most influential writers of the present day.
What influenced you to start writing spoken word poetry?
I love the work of Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks! They inspired me for sure and watching def poetry jam in high school and college! Growing up in Kentucky is also a huge influence on my work. Being a black women in the south shapes your identity, and spoken work and bluegrass allow me to explore that.
What themes do you incorporate into your poetry, and why are they important to you?
Womanhood. Identity. Race. Home. Family. Youth. Health
What would you like to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered as authentic, persistent, and never giving up and being focused. I want to be remembered for helping other people and reaching out to people who are under-served or underprivileged or may just need a helping hand in general.
You can learn more about Berry here. :)
Do you have any common themes often used in your poetry?
Yes. My poetry usually centers around my black, queer and women's identities, as well as politics and current events and issues happening in the world. My poetry usually aims to challenge social norms and structural oppression.
What upcoming projects or plans do you have in terms of your spoken word career?
I cannot announce everything, but I will be touring with my book Not Everything Is A Eulogy and I plan on working on my second manuscript. I will also be competing in August at the National Poetry Slam with the Brooklyn Slam team.
QUICK-FIRE QUESTION: What is your favorite place in the entire world?
My favorite place in the world is the breaking point in my poems.
Check out some of Crystal’s work here. :)