Interviews With Camilo Mejia and Kathy Kelly

Originally published in the June 28, 2005, issue of The Indypendent.

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Interview With We Got Issues! (November 2006)

We Got Issues! isn’t your average spoken-word tour. It’s rather a “performance and civic participation project” conceived and undertaken by several women artists and activists – including Rha Goddess, Jennifer Calderon aka J-Love, and Phakiso “Kiki” Collins. It not only showcases the talents of its artists, which have included Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai and yvonne fly onakeme etaghene, but works to engage and empower the voices of its participants as well. We Got Issues! follows an “artists in residence” model, where the performers spend between one and four weeks in a city, conducting workshops, community dialogue sessions and performances. This year WGI has visited Denver, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Oakland, and has stops in Amherst, MA, planned for December, and in Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami for 2007. We Got Issues! A Young Woman’s Guide to a Bold, Courageous, and Empowered Life, a book based on conversations with more than 1,000 young women, was published this fall. Let’s Do It on the Road caught up with J-Love and some of the other participants via email midway through the tour. Photo by Jason Lew.

How is the tour going so far? How do you choose the cities you go to?

Jennifer Armas: The tour is going well thus far. Each city’s organizers have faced different challenges depending on the lay of the land and the usual glitches: making sure the word is out for community events, trying not to stretch ourselves too thin, holding space for the participants that roll through.

Cities are first targeted around who has contacts. For example, J Love is from Denver so it was a given that we would be heading there. From there, the seeds are planted and folks reach out to community organizations, performance venues, funders, local artists, etc. and see if and how we can support each other.

Please tell us about the Red Tent and what kind of environment you create in each city in order to facilitate these workshops.

Adeeba Rana and Marla Teyolia: The Red Tent is a sacred storytelling and healing place for women to gather, share personal herstories, release emotions, laugh, cry, and be in circles with other women. In ancient times, the Red Tent was the menstrual tent or the womb tent. It was a place where women gathered during their moon cycles to share stories, eat, release emotional pain, transmit culture, and essentially be reborn. In this spirit, when we create a Red Tent in a host city, the facilitators work diligently to transform the environment into a symbolic womb-tent. Red tapestries are hung on the walls. A red net is hung from the ceiling, candles are lit, a water element is brought in that can take the form of a bowl filled with floating flowers or a soothing fountain. Soft music and incense greet the women as they enter. And it is amazing to witness how something ancient, ancestral is activated in each participant as all of her senses are reminded of this sacred journey.

What is your most memorable moment of the previous tour or the present one?

Kibbi Dillon and Monica Pineda: The most memorable aspect of touring with WGI! has been the personal connections I’ve made with the local women. In every city I’ve been approached by women who thank us and appreciate the work that we are doing, recognizing the need to speak up and act up. As soon as I ask them about their lives, I often hear that they wear many different hats in their community as well. They are organizers, educators, activists, mothers, artists, social workers, and writers who juggle these roles because it is what a lot of us do. It has been an empowering and inspiring exchange and a beautiful reminder of the collective work and awakening that is happening across the country.

Who are some of the women who have inspired you in your life, art and activism?

Jennifer “J-Love” Calderon and Jennifer Armas: Definitely my mother and grandmother. They each had three children, worked their asses off to provide for their family and always instilled the need to give to your peoples- whether it’s your friend down the block or to a local church. I come from a very matriarchal household; Mom also drilled it into my skull to always remember her name and her family’s story, not just those of my father. And seeing my grandmother get older I learn more and more each day about letting go of needless things, forgiving, and telling and showing the people in your life how much you love them- as cheesy as that may sound. There are a myriad of other sisters who inspire me- from my students who I’ve seen grow up into young men and women (and are sharper and more intelligent than 99.9% of the people I went to college with) to more well known figures like Audre Lorde or Iris Morales.

What have you learned through the course of these tours? Does anything still surprise you?

Chelsea Gregory: What I have learned first and foremost is how necessary this work is. I have learned how universal our struggles are as women, as young people, as low-income folks, folks of color, folks of alternative ways of life, etc. I have learned that no matter where we are or what we look like, the experiences and aspirations that we share far outweigh the ones we don’t. I now see that we are doing the world a disservice if we don’t continue to build community on that common ground, and continue to strengthen and expand this network.

As an individual, I have learned an incredible amount about my own capacity to connect with people and create and hold space for beautiful, powerful work to be done. I have discovered and re-discovered my own voice through the voices of the women we have been blessed to connect with through this work.

What still surprises me at this point is the amount of love and openness we experience in each and every place that we go. It never ceases to amaze me the ways that women in each city come together and use our project as a catalyst for their work on the local level. Women everywhere are waiting with dreams in our hearts and blueprints in our hands, and sometimes all it takes is a project like WGI! to remind us just how powerful and capable we are. That realization is at the core of We Got Issues’ commitment to building feminine-centered leadership.

To find out more about WGI, visit: www.wegotissues.org.

Interview With Tara Betts (July 2006)

I recently had the great pleasure of hanging out one sunny Saturday at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens with two of New York’s most incredible poets: Tara Betts and Rich Villar. Tara and I had arranged to meet to talk about her upcoming tour of the DC area and her work, so Mr. Villar quietly listened (some people reading this might find that hard to believe, but it was true! … and those of you who don’t know Rich should check him out and Acentos, the poetry series he hosts in the Bronx), while we talked about seeking out new people, places and experiences to feed your art, dancing with Assata Shakur in Cuba, and women helping each other to articulate their experiences and to find better paths through life.

A native of Illinois, Tara moved to New York recently, bringing an impressive set of accomplishments with her. She has performed in the National Poetry Slam, and has appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and on jessica care moore’s “Spoken” on the Black Family Channel. Her work appears in several anthologies, and her poetry was recently featured in Essence Magazine. She is the author of the chapbook SWITCH. You can find out more on her website: www.tarabetts.net. Photo by Dorothy Perry.

What drew you to New York? What differences do you see between New York and Chicago?

TB: There’s a lot of differences, other than food and having more space. I would probably say for me, I felt like I needed to have the room for my career to go and expand a little bit more, and just have different opportunities. Even though I think Chicago was really good in terms of shaping my work ethic around being a working artist and a teaching artist. It was also a very small community.

That’s kind of what it ended up being. There’s so many things [in New York] if you want to do anything with television; if you want to do anything with publishing or freelance write for major magazines that are nationally known; if you want to do voiceover, which is some of the stuff I’ve been wanting to get into, then this is a good place to be. … Just some different exposure, I just wanted to be in a different place and to see if I could make it outside of Illinois, because I grew up in Illinois and I’ve never lived anyplace else.

In Chicago, you co-founded a workshop called Girlspeak. Could you talk about that a bit?

TB: Girlspeak was a project that I helped start at Young Chicago Authors. We wanted to start a program that was more inclusive of having girls speak up and articulate their issues, but also to do that through writing and presenting work. We noticed that there was kinda this schism in representation: You have more girls in writing classes, but there are fewer girls who are performing, fewer girls who are articulating what’s happening with women.

I had one student, and she was saying when she saw me read, “Wow, I really admire you, I don’t feel like I could ever get up in front of people and say things. You say things that talk about stuff that’s happening in my life.” And I was like, “Yes, you can, and you need to!” We kinda developed a friendship from there, but it’s like I don’t think we always get that from older women. I know I’ve looked for it a lot too. I thought that was important, even if you were strong in where you stood, you wanted to have somebody who was kind of a mentor. That’s kinda what it stemmed out of, all of those things.

So you’ve tried to do that and provide that for younger girls?

TB: And they have a lot to say too. So many writing classes are full of women, but it’s that need to feel like you need to speak up. Yeah, you speak through the writing, but it’s like do you just keep it to yourself? Is this just you processing, getting through things that you’re going to experience or have experienced? If it’s not just that, how do you make people aware of what you’re trying to say?

What do you get out of these workshops? What do they teach you?

TB: I think sometimes it forces me to explore my own process in writing. It keeps me aware of how other people see the world. It pushes me to just challenge myself a little bit, and continue to be involved with different communities. … How do you start to bridge these communities and say such and such does this and they do that? I kinda like doing that. It’s like some people think activist work is all these different things, but sometimes you need people who connect other people to each other, and that’s a valuable tool to use and to be.

You recently wrote on your MySpace blog about Assata Shakur and a poem that appears at the beginning of her biography. What about her biography and the poem speak to you?

TB: I think that book when I read it hit me at a very valuable time. I was just recovering from surgery. I had surgery ten years ago for a tumor that was behind my heart that was the size of my heart. And it was pressing against my heart, and I had chest pain. It was a really traumatic experience to go through that. But I had to take a semester off from school. I’d always been really curious about black history, so I started digging up these books. I found a copy of Huey Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide,” Bobby Seale, George Jackson. I was feeling like, where are the women? I had read Elaine Brown, because when I was in high school she came out with “A Taste of Power.” And I was like, who am I missing?

I went and I read Assata Shakur’s biography for the first time. It was like, she said all these things; she’s not writing for art’s sake. She’s one of these people where it’s like there’s some craft in the writing, but you can tell she’s exploring these situations that some black people have experienced, or even some of them may feel like for a lot of kids today like they’re set in the past, but it feels a little bit more immediate than the Civil Rights Movement. It feels a little bit more immediate than say talking about the Jim Crow era, which I find a lot of kids, particular students of color, who are like, is that all that ever happened to us? Nobody ever fight back? It feels kind of empowering to read something like that. It’s funny, because I have the same copy that I originally bought, and took it Cuba and read it again, so I’ve read it like three or four times. When I was teaching at the juvenile detention center, I had kids read it. At least three times, kids borrowed the book, and I always got it back.

It engendered respect and a need to pass it on to other people.

TB: I think if you can do that with your writing, that people feel like it’s important enough to share, then you wrote something that was really valuable. For me, I feel like I needed to see a woman’s narrative. I needed to see something that embraced the artist. Even though I think it is a serious skill to write a book, for her to put poems in the book would draw people in who might not feel comfortable right away. I think it’s a very effective device for her to use as a writer, because most of those books are heavy in the jargon, heavy in the propaganda-based language. I think hers is just very well-spoken, but just easy to read in some respects, and not in a way that talks down to you. I feel like a lot of times when we talk about activist work, or working in communities, or being politicized, we think we have to use these big words, but when I talk to my mother, I don’t say “hegemony,” I don’t say “patriarchy.” What do we say when we talk to our family and our friends, who aren’t necessarily embracing that type of language.

How did you end up in Cuba, and what was it like reading Shakur’s biography there, where she is still exiled?

TB: I think it was me romanticizing a little bit to read the book in Cuba. I ended up going for a writers’ conference that’s no longer happening. It was called “Writers of the Americas.” They brought together writers from the United States who applied to the program with writers who are based in Cuba. It was one of those experiences that really shifted my thinking about a lot of things, because like I said, I’ve never really left Illinois very much. I would tour within the United States some, but going to Cuba was this whole other experience, because I’d never been anywhere internationally. Going there, and recognizing, wow, there are black folks who look like people I see on the South Side. That’s a really altering experience for a lot of people who are from the African-American community. For me it was. I knew it intellectually and I had read about all these different communities, but to see it and experience it, and realize how much things were the same in a lot of ways, was a beautiful thing for me. To kinda soak up a place, be a little uncomfortable, and realize that America can be a little bit too much sometimes, not in all the bad ways, but in terms of the excess. There’s a lot of people who do with a lot less, and still manage to be joyful, to create, to do something.

Every place has it’s problems, but I really loved being there, getting to know some of the people, seeing how the artists can create almost anything. It reminds me in a lot of ways of hip-hop; I’m not surprised that there’s such a vibrant hip-hop culture in Cuba, for that very reason. If all you got is this, you gotta make something out of it. We did a reading in this one set of projects that are like the some of the biggest projects in the world, but they have artists and performance galleries in the base of the projects. So they have artists live in the studios and they do stuff there. We went and we read there, and we were hanging out with all these people, and they were just making up songs. Maybe somebody got a pair of claves, they pull out a table and they’ll make beats, and make songs behind each other. And you’re like, I like this, this feels like something I’m into.

It was also weird to be reading Shakur’s biography, to be in the hip-hop club, and she just walks in. And you’re like, hold up! What happened? You’re real! My friends, they realized, OK, she’s Assata Shakur, yeah, yeah, whatever. But I think for black people in America, we realize that sometimes you aren’t going to live if you say anything. And you probably won’t if you really look like you might be a threat, and that’s why she can’t ever come back. What is it like a million dollars on her head still? She travels with bodyguards and stuff, but she’s in the hip-hop club with us, and still like rooted and talking to people and friendly and just beautiful. She’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met. The only thing I could say to her when I met her, was I hugged her and I was like, “I’m glad to meet you, I’m so glad you’re safe.” That was all I could say, and then we were like dancing, because they were playing Tupac and Lauryn Hill, and we’re like, “Hey!” It was kinda like one of those strange moments that just seems a little surreal.

Getting back to teaching, what happens when you go to teach poetry in a detention center? What kind of exchange happens there?

TB: I don’t think the kids are much different than the kids you meet in a regular school. I think sometimes, if anything, they want to talk and they’re more eager than kids who are outside the system, in part, because sometimes these are kids who don’t always get a chance to talk. They’re usually disciplined out of school, for one reason or another, or they’re from marginalized communities, or they’ve been abused, particularly with young women, there’s a lot of cases of sexual abuse. One day in class I asked the girls, how many of you are in here for carrying something for your man? More than half of the hands shot up in the room!

I think for me, it was the mental wear and tear of being there that made me pull back from it some. I still think it’s a valuable thing that needs to be done. My partner that I used to work with there does some amazing work with young people, and he’s always trying to bring in poets and writers, male and female, just to kinda expose the kids to new ideas and encourage them to get their thoughts out and vent things that they’re going through, and to look at the world critically in as many different ways as they can, to maybe get them to consider other options when they leave. That’s what education is supposed to be anyway, a tool to dismantle things that can harm you, or empower you to act in a world that’s more beneficial to you and to other people.

I was reading your poem in your chapbook “Switch,” about that last night. It’s an incredible poem.

TB: Thank you. Oh yeah, “Women Writer’s Workshop” [click on “Poems”]. That was when I was doing the workshop at Cook County, which was adult women. It’s a different vibe. It’s heartbreaking. There was a lot of times I ended up going home and I would just cry. It was so painful to be there and know, wow, once you’re an adult it’s almost infinitely harder to recover and just be in the world. Especially when there’s not resources for when you get out. If you’re poor, which is most of the people who are in jail, then it’s like, ain’t nobody going to put you in therapy and counseling or make sure you have a safe place to live. More often than not, you go back to the same community where the abuse was, your economic hardship was, and the violence was, all of that stuff. It’s a weird world we live in. We think it’s corrections or rehabilitation, but I think it’s a misnomer, or a bad choice of words.

What have you learned about yourself/the world while on tour and performing in new places?

TB: It teaches you I think to be flexible but to still have things that are nonnegotiable. Kelly Tsai is always saying, “I have to have this. It’s just nonnegotiable!” I think it’s really true though. A lot of times poets get put at the bottom of the artist barrel. People think they don’t have to pay you. People think that you don’t need to eat, that you don’t need transportation. Part of you needs to be flexible, because travel’s just crazy like that. And then a part of you also has to be like, how much is it worth to you to make this trip? I think I learned that.

I’ve met people I wouldn’t normally meet. I’ve been in situations I wouldn’t normally be in. Not necessarily bad, but just like, oh, OK, so this is what Baltimore is like in the middle of the day. This is what it means to walk around Sacramento and everything looks like an old-fashioned Western town. I think it’s good to kind of feed the potential landscapes that can be in your work. Just hearing from people and meeting people who have different influences than your own. It’s also feeling like you can forge bonds and friendships not just where you find your home, and I think that’s good for me too, because I’ve always felt like I wanted to have a broad landscape of people who I can share the world with, across cultures, races, genders. I think I’ve done pretty good with that. I wish I could get all of my friends from different circles to come to a party together, because it would just be amusing to watch, to watch people look uncomfortable and then have a good time maybe. That would be fun.

What are three essential things you have to bring on tour with you?

TB: Arm & Hammer Baking Soda Peroxide toothpaste, my journal and I would either say, a black ink pen or MAC lipstick.

Interview With Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai (March 2006)

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is “pretty much always on the move.” The Chinese/Taiwanese American spoken word artist frequently travels between her two hometowns, New York and Chicago, remaining deeply connected to both communities, both of which fuel her art and activism. And she’s increasingly in demand nearly every place else these days, having featured at 135 performances across the country and on two seasons of “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” Her first full-length play, “Murder the Machine,” will be excerpted at Chicago’s first Hip Hop Theater Festival in May 2006. Catch her online at http://www.yellowgurl.com.

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is “pretty much always on the move.” The Chinese/Taiwanese American spoken word artist frequently travels between her two hometowns, New York and Chicago, remaining deeply connected to both communities, both of which fuel her art and activism. And she’s increasingly in demand nearly every place else these days, having featured at 135 performances across the country and on two seasons of “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” Her first full-length play, “Murder the Machine,” will be excerpted at Chicago’s first Hip Hop Theater Festival in May 2006. Catch her online at www.yellowgurl.com.

Have the last few months been particularly busy for you traveling/performing-wise? Or are you pretty much always on the move, at least between your two homes, Chicago and New York?

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai: I’m pretty much always on the move. It’s been increasingly this way for the last few years. Sometimes, I joke with people that where I really live is “out of town,” but I feel truly blessed to be able to share my spoken word, music, movement, and energy with so many communities across the country and increasingly the world.

Speaking of your two hometowns, what does each place feed for you? What keeps you connected to both places? How do those connections feed your art?

KZYT: That’s a really good question. I kinda do these crude comparisons all of the time, and both places contribute so much to who I am as a person, as a woman, what I believe, what I love, and how I move in the world. It’s been really hard for me to detach from my community in Chicago, and I still feel very connected to that. After two years of living here in Brooklyn, I feel like I’m just starting to put some roots down. So to cross-fertilize myself across these two places is really important to me.

One of my friends says that he feels like Chicago is about hard work and talent, and I think that’s absolutely true. The people I know there write, make music, do spoken word for the simple and sheer love of it with a fierce fidelity to telling the truth and getting deeper on craft even if the world will never see that work. In New York, I feel like I am a part of this incredibly dynamic community that sees no boundaries for who, what, how, when or where a story is told. There are amazing artists here who work across a huge number of disciplines, and that kind of polymorphousness I truly appreciate. Based off my superficial theorizing, I feel like the organizing, dance, and underground music communities are really different between the two places too.

It’s kinda tough sometimes being stretched across these places, but as an immigrant kid, my heart stretches to as far as Taipei and beyond to every spot in the world where people that I love live. So it’s fairly natural to me to, I grew up always being very far away from people that I love.

From your own experience and from what you’ve seen in your community work, how is creating art a powerful liberating force, both on an individual level, and in society at large?

KZYT: To say, “I am” is a very important and critical statement to make to yourself and the world. Now, I know people can say bullshit and say that’s just the same goddamn crap people keep putting out, all of this identity politics, or liberal whatever. I can’t even begin to say how brainwashed we are into thinking that everything is the same, everything is cool, to assume as one of my friends says that silence means peace. Now, that’s the biggest load of bullshit ever. To silence who we are as people, to silence what are the effects and consequences of our actions whether it’s rape or street violence or war or white collar crime, makes it easy for each of us to be dehumanized just a little bit more. For people not to give a fuck. For us to get really disconnected from the fact of how much life we each possess and have the right to possess. And then comes tyranny, exploitation, dictatorship — whether it’s an abusive member of the household, cops who are terrorizing kids on the block, or the IMF starving out indigenous farmers. That’s what art is about. A BOLD and LOUD I AM. So we start to understand each other with and without judgment and don’t do all of this jacked up shit to each
other, and that for me, is what’s up.

Reading your poem, “By-Standing: The Beginning of an American Lifetime,” made me think how “bystanding” is almost an American pastime, considered almost a virtue in this country, the most sacred thing you can be is an “innocent bystander,” and most pitied if caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s also the notion of how we’re all supposed to stay out of the way of the accepted narrative of history. Is that mentality something you try to overcome/confront in/with your work?

KZYT: Ha! You got it. Sometimes, I wonder if these titles work on these poems at all, but yes, you’ve given me hope! Yeah, the evolution of that poem is a fairly simple one. Back in 2003, I had the opportunity to perform at the Chicago Not in Our Name Rally, where 4,000 convened to protest the War in Iraq. In my head, I was thinking, lemme write an anti-war poem for people who don’t give a fuck about politics. How would I be able to communicate just the simple statement – that there’s no reason for, there’s no purpose for war? For me, that meant that I go back into my life and just start to understand war. That for our generation, up ’til now, we’re supposed to have lived in times of “peace.”

So I started to pick through my experiences and really understand where war and therefore violence seeps into our lives in times of “peace,” the echoes of it, the shadows of it, its ghosts, its descendants. I think I maybe titled the poem, By-Standing…because that poem really demonstrates for me a critical break…the entire poem is about experiencing and not acting and for me by the end of it the accumulation of all of those experiences propels me to move forward — that we can’t wait around for another September 11th to happen to start
understanding how the U.S. is consistently involved in the lives and deaths of people around the world and has been for decades and decades. It’s not enough to let crisis dictate our desires and our urgency. To say that we’re not responsible because we don’t agree with this country, we don’t believe in this country or even if we do … is not enough.

I’m not saying it’s easy because it absolutely isn’t. And I have a lot of times that I would rather listen to Sean Paul or watch Project Runway than watch CNN, and I do. Sometimes that shit makes more sense to me. But on better days, I try to consistently remind myself of what is invisible and what is visible. What do we see the government doing and what do we not? What do we see ourselves doing and what do we not? And at least look for the opportunity to act. So that when it presents itself — we are hopefully ready.

Please tell us about Mango Tribe Productions, We Got Issues! and your work with those two projects. What have been the reactions to or results from the shows and workshops you’ve brought to different places around the country? What kinds of conversations have they started?

KZYT: Mango Tribe has been around since 2001, and I have been involved with We Got Issues! since 2003. Damn, feelin’ old, ha! Mango Tribe is an Asian Pacific Islander American spoken word and multidisciplinary theater company based in New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis. We Got Issues! is a New York-based arts and civic transformation leadership project that is the brain-child of hip hop activists Rha Goddess and J. Love. Both groups are incredibly powerful sista circles, and I am incredibly blessed to be a part of both of them. Although different in style, content, and the mix of the groups, both groups I think have received really great support and reception from communities around the country.

A lot the work we do through Mango Tribe focuses on APIA culture, immigration, globalization, war, migration, and sexual violence. Mangoes are really committed to not only upping our game in terms of art, but also really trying to initiate dialogue about ideas about gender and how violence and sexual predation plays itself out in our communities. We try to step what we speak, so the art is activism, but there is also straight-up activism involved. We Got Issues! focuses on young women’s engagement in civics and politics, so it opens up conversations about why are women either connected to or not connected at all to our political system. Through this project, we call into question, what is up with our government and electoral politics and how can we as young women heal, motivate, inspire, structure, and act upon creating a presence in this country where our voices, lives, and experiences are represented.

You also have a theater production company called Moving
Earth Productions
. Please tell us about how that came together and about your debut production, “Murder the Machine,” which will be excerpted at Chicago’s first Hip-Hop Theater Festival this spring.

KZYT: “Have” is not so much the operative word, as is “beginning,” ha! The excerpt at the Hip Hop Theater Festival will be a 20 minute staged reading of a piece that I’ve been actively drafting for the last year and dreaming on for the last three years. Moving Earth will house the projects beyond spoken word that I’m developing as a multidisciplinary performer and playwright. What sets this project apart is that its focus is to create performance for new audiences of color about issues that are relevant to young people between the ages of 18-30. So it’s still really in its birthing stages, which is very exciting and scary, but like every project it will gain definition with each time out. What I can say is that Moving Earth will incorporate my love of music, poetry, performance, movement, and ensemble work with my love of using theater and performance as a tool for social justice (i.e. Theater of the Oppressed/Forum Theater) and a redux of how performance is produced, where, and for whom. And the rest, well, only the future can tell, ha!

What have you learned about yourself/the world while on tour and performing in new places?

KZYT: “We all live in the same house” is one of my favorite things to say these days. So I guess that means, we gotta love each other and work it out whether we are activists, corporate heads, mothers, teenagers, murderers, skinheads. We all gotta work it out. We don’t all have to get along, but we gotta work it out. The other thing is that, damn, sometimes, I go places and I talk with folks, and I realize, “Well, hell, I just didn’t know shit about that at all.” All of our experiences are so limited, and to have a glimpse into someone else’s life and experience is one of the best things we can give to ourselves and to the world, and that learning needs to happen — endlessly!

What is your favorite/least favorite thing about touring?

KZYT: One of my favorite things about touring is all the dope people that I get to meet. It means so much that people are creating spaces for creativity and community all over the country, and to be welcomed into other people’s houses with the enthusiasm, joy, faith, and belief in my work is one of the dopest feelings in the world.

Least favorite things — If I’m not careful, sometimes I get a little over-fatigued and scrambled, and I don’t know where I am anymore. For real. Sleep is very important.

What is the best/worst/weirdest place you’ve ever performed?

KZYT: I still remember a couple years back when this dude introduced Mango Tribe with our normal bio and that “they’re really hot.” After which, we stormed on the stage on performed this fierce set about sexual violence. The irony of that moment still cracks my shit up.

What are you working on now?

KZYT: In addition to everything with Mango Tribe, We Got Issues!, and Moving Earth, I’m working on a chapbook of love poems right now, and later on this year, I will be working on a solo-ish show that will integrate a lot of music and movement called the “The Grieving Room.” In between, I’ve got umpteen projects I’m working on, but always getting deeper on spoken word — and now I’m finding myself with more dance and choreographic projects, fiction, and non-fiction projects as well. So I’m working on telling myself that everything doesn’t have to happen right now, ha!

What’s the first thing you do when you get home from the road?

KZYT: Throw my bag down in my room and lay down on my bed!

What are three things you can’t go on tour without?

KZYT: Cell phone, Bubble bath, Journal

Interview With Yvonne O! Etaghene (September 2005)

Yvonne O! Etaghene, a.k.a. Fly, is a self-described “poetess, freedom fighter, actress, playwright, dancer.” Before embarking on her second tour of the year, she checked in via email with Letsdoitontheroad.com and featured at Words of Wisdom at Spoken-Words Café in Brooklyn, where she blew the roof off and set the place on fire, not just with anger, but with fierce love, too. (She also schooled yours truly and the rest of the audience on how to pronounce her name: It’s e-TA-GHE-ne … get it right!) Find out more about Fly and her work (and her upcoming 2006 tour) at her website: http://www.writeordie.com.

Yvonne O! Etaghene, a.k.a. Fly, is a self-described “poetess, freedom fighter, actress, playwright, dancer.” Before embarking on her second tour of the year, she checked in via email with Letsdoitontheroad.com and featured at Words of Wisdom at Spoken-Words Café in Brooklyn, where she blew the roof off and set the place on fire, not just with anger, but with fierce love, too. (She also schooled yours truly and the rest of the audience on how to pronounce her name: It’s e-TA-GHE-ne … get it right!) Find out more about Fly and her work (and her upcoming 2006 tour) at her website: www.writeordie.com.

Where have you toured so far this year?

Yvonne O! Etaghene: From May 2005 to July 2005, I performed in Cambridge, Mass., Philly, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Chicago, Bowling Green, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan.

You infuse your work with politics and activism. What kinds of reactions have you received?

YOE: In general people feel my work and respond positively. I have no horror stories of being boo-ed by ignorant crowds who didn’t agree with my politics and I thank GODDESS for that!!

What have you learned about the state of this country while traveling around on tour?

YOE: People are sweet all over. And believe me that was not what I expected to learn. What has struck me over and over is the kindness I’ve been blessed with by people who know nothing about me or where I am from. I’ve also heard some off-the-wall poetry, and I was sitting there like, “Damn, I have honestly never seen anything like this,” but in a strange way I appreciate the offbeat, unexpected shit, it keeps life interesting.

What is your favorite/least favorite thing about touring?

YOE: Least favorite: Not having my own things in my own space where and how I want them (!!!) and not always being able to be alone when I want to be alone.

Most favorite: Discovering the tastiest treats to devour in each city, yummy!

What is the best/worst/strangest place that you’ve performed?

YOE: Best place: The Breathing Space in Oakland was dope, because the people I ripped it with were so wonderful. Soul Poetry Cafe at the Hot House in Chicago was lovely just because it is a beautiful space and the crowd was so so warm. And the Mahogany Poetry Series in Sacramento!!!

Worst/strangest: Hands down, that bar I performed in during the Allied
Media Conference
in Bowling Green, Ohio. Dope conference, crazy venue! The performance was in a bar on a Sunday night, and half the folks in there were the regular bar-goers, while the other half were participants from the conference. So I had to battle the drunkards for attention. But I think I won, cuz folks shut up and it’s one of those stories my friends tell now, “Did Yvonne ever tell you about the time she shut up all these drunk people in a bar in Ohio with her poetry…” So it’s cool. At least I got a nice story out of it.

In a column you wrote for dykediva.com awhile back, you said that “the search for love is a search for self.” How does being on tour impact your sense of self? Being in strange places, performing in front of strange people, encountering unfriendly strangers, having to rely on friendly strangers to set things up for you, give you a place to sleep for the night, etc.

YOE: I can’t believe you’re quoting me to me! Thank you, because that is a quote I really need to hold in my heart at all times. Being on the road is such an opportunity for growth and love to flourish. I have definitely been lonely on the road and just wanted to go home and go to bed. I have definitely just wanted to stop performing all together. Sometimes I get sick of my own poetry. But there are also just moments of pure beauty where I just want to stop the whole world and cry in gratitude. People who I just met opening their homes to me while I’m in their city and people just being friendly and having a conversation with me like I’m an old friend. Strangers have kissed my soul with love and I am so thankful and blessed to have met them. Some of those strangers are now my family!

Did you bring your wedding dress on tour with you? 🙂

YOE: No, but I brought cowrie shells and sand from a beach in Santa Rosa. 🙂

Do you adopt a persona that is at all different from how you are in your daily life?

YOE: I am who I am. There is no need to create some other better, doper person to be. Whether you’ve known me for 5 years or a couple days, this is me. I did think about it for a minute tho at the beginning of my tour, and then I was like, no. I am a colorful enough woman without adding another personality. Sometimes tho, I am an even more intense version of myself and that is soooo much fun. 🙂

When/how did you start writing?

YOE: When I was about 9 years old, I started writing horror stories and love stories and just stories in general about young people. It wasn’t until the 6th grade in Mrs. Dominico’s English class that I wrote my first poem.

When did you move from Nigeria to the United States? What brought you here? What are you studying in grad school?

YOE: I was born in the (not so) good ol’ U. S. of A. What brought my parents here was colonialism and how much it has drained the resources of our country to the point that its citizens have to flee to super racist countries like this one so their kids can have an expensive (mis)education. In grad school at New York University, I was studying creative writing and performance poetry. I am currently taking a much needed leave from that institution.

What are three essential things that you cannot go on tour without?

YOE: Cell phone (I know I should be more poetic, but that’s just real), my mama’s wrap (which I love love love!) and my spirit (please note these are so not in order of importance!!)

What’s the first thing you plan to do when you get home from being on the road?

YOE: I plan to eat my mama’s homecooking!!! Oh how these lips, mouth and belly of mine miss the divine luscious deliciousness of my mama’s porridge and chin-chin, homemade pizza and stew, fired plantain and… (I could go on and on!)

Interview With the Original Woman (July 2005)

On stage, the Original Woman, a.k.a., Nitche Ward, confesses, “I have to tell the truth. I’m not really a poet. I’m a people’s soldier. I only use poetry as a tool to mobilize the people.” This native of North Carolina, has been educating, training, and mobilizing since 1996. She also co-chairs a five-location spoken-word series with Queen Sheba, Kwintessential and HBO’s Punany Poet Mo’ Browne, called “Sistah Cypher: Women Empowerment Through Spoken Word,” hosted out of Washington, DC; Chicago, IL; Durham, NC; Norfolk, VA; and London, UK. You can find out more about her and her two spoken-word CDs, “The Messenger of Truth” and “Life—By Any Means Necessary,” on her website: theoriginalwoman.com.

On stage, the Original Woman, a.k.a., Nitche Ward, confesses, “I have to tell the truth. I’m not really a poet. I’m a people’s soldier. I only use poetry as a tool to mobilize the people.” This native of North Carolina, has been educating, training, and mobilizing since 1996. She also co-chairs a five-location spoken-word series with Queen Sheba, Kwintessential and HBO’s Punany Poet Mo’ Browne, called “Sistah Cypher: Women Empowerment Through Spoken Word,” hosted out of Washington, DC; Chicago, IL; Durham, NC; Norfolk, VA; and London, UK. You can find out more about her and her two spoken-word CDs, “The Messenger of Truth” and “Life—By Any Means Necessary,” on her website: theoriginalwoman.com.

How/when did you start writing and performing poetry?

Original Woman: You know for any poet—poetry is something that you are born with—it’s something that runs in your veins since birth. Poetry has been on my fingertips since I was old enough to know how to use a pencil. I remember writing about my experiences since elementary. Believe it or not I was always somewhat of any introvert, so the only outlet to get out some of my frustration was through poetry. I was raised pretty much as an only child. I am the oldest of five; the youngest of my siblings and I are separated by 15 years, so I was alone a good portion of my life. So my pencil was always my best friend. I was never the prettiest or the most popular. I wasn’t the best at anything, but I could always write. I remember competing in writing and oratorical competitions in middle and high school, and for some reason I won a lot of them, so I grew attached to my writing.

Did you wed poetry with politics from the beginning?

OW: I have always believed the old saying that “the personal is political.” I wrote about my experiences and my frustrations. I remember one of the first poems I ever performed was called “The Black Man’s Pride.” It talked about the frustrations of people of color living in America today, and how it was rooted in the politics of this country over the last 400 years. I think I was in 9th grade at the time, so I was about 14 years old. I performed it at school during a student
body assembly—a talent show or something—the poem was so raw and blunt that the principle cut off my mic in the middle of the poem. This was one of my first realizations that people were afraid of the truth. I ended up spitting the poem for everyone after school that day while we were waiting for the buses. I think I helped create a few revolutionaries then, though none of us knew what the word revolutionary meant at the time. Ever since then I have committed myself to recruiting soldiers one by one.

How/when/why did you choose “The Original Woman” as your artistic name?

OW: Ironically it wasn’t purposeful! One of the my oldest poems was called “The Original Woman.” It was a poem about full figured women — and how we rock! Over time it became my most requested piece — particularly in this little black owned coffeehouse in Durham, North Carolina called IDEAS. So whenever someone saw me in the street, they could never remember my name, so they would say, “hey um, um ౏ original woman,” and it kind of just stuck! Over time I have made the
title my own, and I use it to bring awareness to cultural and body image issues, as well as sarcastically breaking down the gender binary.

Please tell us about Sistah Cypher. How does a five-venue poetry series work?

OW: Sistah Cypher is a national network of women empowerment through the form of art—in particular spoken word. The organization was started by me and two other international spoken-word artists, Queen Sheba and Kwintessential. What we do is go scouting for some of the most powerful artists, who are also hardcore activists in the communities, and showcase them through performance and workshops. We work on issues such as rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, pay equity, affirmative action, women in the military, LGBT awareness, the war against women, media madness against women, and other hot topics that affect women today. What differentiates us from most artistic projects out there is our action component. We are also out there organizing students and elders, putting together protests and rallies, educating the youth, going in the schools—we try our best to create change and not just talk about it. Right now we have venues in Washington, DC; Norfolk, VA; Chicago, IL; Durham, NC; and we have a brand-new venue in London. We are out hitting the concrete constantly bringing people into the movement through spoken word, and we are growing everyday. For the most part, one or more of our co-chairs travel to the city where the Sistah Cypher is being held at that time. We soon hope to build representation in every state. “It takes a village to raise a child—and a woman to raise the world!” (Superwoman, by the Original Woman)

You recently produced the Freedom Fire Spoken Word Festival and the “$1,000 Poetry Slam” in Washington, DC. How did they go? How did these projects come about?

OW: The Freedom Fire Spoken Word Festival was a project that was used to create and support artists in the social justice movement. I guess the best way to describe the Freedom Festival is that it is like a huge family reunion—yeah, a family reunion of artists and activists nationwide united for change. The Freedom Festival is an annual event held in different cities each year; this year it was in Washington, DC, and it was spectacular! Those who missed it this year will surely not want to miss it next year, when it will be held in Denver, Colorado. We try to teach artists of all forms how to learn to use their gift for changing the world. It’s not enough to just teach any more. There are a lot of artists out there that think it’s enough just to teach about social justice issues—and yes, we need that too—but it’s not enough. We can’t just talk about it; we have to be about it! That’s what the Freedom Festival is about—working with artists to not only talk about it, but be about it. But we all have heard that “the revolution is financial,” so in addition to working on the movement, the Freedom Festival works with artists to improve their booking and management as well. The Big Highlight of the festival is the $1000 poetry slam. The best of the best poets from all over the country come together for inspirational competition—and one leaves with slightly heavier pockets. It’s not about the money though. The prize money is just a way to help a few soldiers in the movement continue their artistic struggle.

What is your vision for a spoken-word movement?

OW: I don’t know where the spoken-word movement is going. Although I perform spoken word, I don’t consider myself a spoken-word artist. I’m just a soldier in the movement myself; I only use poetry as a tool to deliver the message. A lot of times you can’t get everybody to go to a rally or a protest, or a meeting, so you have to find alternative ways to get the message across. All I know is that the movement will never die, because poets and artists around the world are keeping it alive. That’s what keeps me breathing.

What’s the best/worst experience you’ve had while touring/performing?

OW: Worst performance—I had a freak accident while touring through Georgia and South Carolina. I fell in the shower about a month prior and bruised my leg a little. It didn’t seem to bother me that much, and it didn’t scar. While I was on tour my leg started swelling up and it was becoming extremely painful. I didn’t even think about the shower fall, because it had been at least a month prior. A week into the tour, my leg was so swollen that I couldn’t walk on it, and I had to perform my shows sitting down. Two weeks into the road trip, I was on stage, and out of the blue, my leg burst open, and before I knew it I was standing in a puddle of blood. I know it sounds crazy! I was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the show, and I was hospitalized in the middle of Bum Fuck Egypt for 10 days! The good news about it is that it created an awesome piece called “Poets Spittin’in Blood!”

Best Performance—The March for Women’s Lives—Washington, DC; April 24, 2004—Largest march in the history of the US. It was so powerful to see so many people united together for women’s issues. Sometimes in the movement we feel like we’re the only ones. But when I was on that stage and I looked out into the audience and saw groves of people further than my eyes could see, I felt the ultimate solidarity.

What are three essential things that you cannot go on tour without?

OW: A pillow and a blanket to sleep on (in case I have to rough it for the night)
Pencil and Paper to keep myself inspired
And CDs to Sell

What’s the first thing you do when you get home from being on the road?

OW: Sleep! Sleep! And Sleep! Being on the road is hard! Don’t believe the hype they tell you on TV. A lot of artists come into this thinking that being a full-time artist on the road is spectacular and fun. I had my feelings hurt a few times in the beginning with those expectations! As a spoken-word artist, you’re often on the road for months with no money, no place to stay, no food, and no idea about how you are going to get to the next venue. There has been several times when I had to spend my last $2 getting to the venue, praying that I sell enough CDs for gas and food for the next couple of days, and hoping that someone would be gracious enough to let me sleep on their floor until my next gig. Floors are hard, and cars are crowded! We keep doing it, because we believe in the art and the movement. Sheba always says, “Hey, sleep when you’re dead!” Most of the time I can’t sleep more than 3 or 4 hours at a time when I’m on the road just because I’m uncomfortable, or it’s cold, or I have to be aware of my surroundings, so the first thing I do when I get home is jump in my big cushy bed and fall into a coma!

Interview With Ali Liebegott, Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin (March 2005)

Catching Up With the Rent Girl and Beautifully Worthless Tour
by Susan Chenelle

There are times when I wish I did live on the West Coast, like when New York gets hit with snow and freezing rain three weekends in a row. Or when three awesome women artists like Michelle Tea, Ali Liebegott, and Laurenn McCubbin team up to show off their fabulous new books, and Boulder is as far east as they’re going. Sigh, but at least I was fortunate enough to catch up with them via email before they hit the road, and now you can too. To find out more about their work and how amazing they are, click here.

How did this tour come about? How did you plan it?

Tea: Me and Laurenn needed to hit some more of the country in support of Rent Girl, and I’ve been dying for Ali’s book to come out so I could tour with her again!

McCubbin: Michelle is totally in charge of the planning—she is a tour booking monster.

What is your primary mode of transportation?

Liebegott: Well, we were going to take Laurenn’s fabulous Dodge Dart, but I think we’re going to rent a car now, because the Dart wasn’t feeling good enough for a long trip.

McCubbin: We are renting a car. We were going to drive my car Molly, which is a 1972 Dodge Dart … but for SOME REASON, Michelle had doubts about Molly’s ability to make it across country. It could be her proclivity for blowing up. Molly’s, not Michelle’s.

What advice do you have for anyone planning a tour?

Liebegott: Either be a practicing alcoholic with practicing alcoholics or a sober alcoholic with sober alcoholics. And bring lots of books to sell.

McCubbin: Laurenn: Have Michelle book your tour. (heh) Bring lots of water, and Emergen-cees. Moisturize. Wear sunscreen.

Tea: Um, just stay on top of it. Don’t be afraid to annoy people, to stay in close touch with them. Also, it doesn’t matter if someone is a good performer if they’re too mentally unstable to travel in close quarters with.

Michelle, Laurenn: The words and illustrations in Rent Girl are so well matched. How did your collaboration come about and how did it work?

Tea: It was Laurenn’s suggestion and I really loved the idea of doing an illustrated book, especially with her illustrations! She really hooked the whole thing up for us. I had thought I had enough outtakes from my novel to fill the book, but as it turned out I only had like two or three. So I wrote my ass off and sent them to Laurenn and she did the illustrations–a very intense process I’m sure she’ll tell you all about!

McCubbin: Michelle and I had worked on a couple of small things before RG, and I really wanted to work on something longer. When Michelle said that she had a bunch of short stories that were outtakes of her books Valencia and Chelsea Whistle, I saw the opportunity to put them all together.

Collaborating with Michelle was really easy—she is not very demanding. She did have concerns about me drawing her family, so we left them out of it. Also, she really wanted to make sure that I didn’t make sex work look too “glamourous”—this is not “Pretty Woman,” after all. It was hard to not over-glamourize—I mean, when you are drawing a lot of girls in lingerie, how can they not look pretty? But think we did a good job of balancing the glamour with the reality—the words and images have an excellent tension.

Ali, please tell us about your new modern road epic in verse, The Beautifully Worthless. Was it at all influenced by your touring experiences or has travel always inspired/influenced you?

Liebegott: No, not at all. It’s really about being alone on the road, which is completely different than being on the road with a bunch of fabulous women. I’ve driven across the country several times alone. But the book is an actual trip I took to Idaho.

What are you working on now? What is your next project?

Liebegott: I’m just finishing a novel, The IHOP Papers, which is the mad diary of a depressed virgin pancake waitress, and I’m 3/4 of the way through an illustrated novel about a post-September 11th compulsive duckfeeder.

Tea: I’m almost done with my first novel, Rose of No Man’s Land. It’ll be out February 2006 on MacAdam/Cage. Also I have a screenplay that something might be happening with, there are producers sniffing Rent Girl‘s butt for a possible film option, and me and Laurenn are working on another project, a graphic novel called Carrier.

McCubbin: I am working on a piece with Stephen Elliott for the upcoming anthology Politically Inspired. Also, I am starting on my own book, Baby Girl Bollenger, a comic that I am writing and drawing for Image Comics.

What are the three things you can’t go on tour without?

Liebegott: Q-tips, meds, watercolor and sketchbook.

Tea: Valerian for sleeping, a book to read and facial moisturizer!

McCubbin: My laptop—I am ALWAYS working. My iPod—Michelle likes it when I play her new music. Books, newspapers and fashion magazines, so Michelle will read to me while I drive. She has promised to read me the new Vogue on our way to LA—SO! EXCITED!

What’s the first thing you do when you get home from the road?

Liebegott: Play playstation and play with my animals.

Tea: Go straight to Radar, a series I curate at the San Francisco Public Library! I’ll be cutting it wicked close; I think Laurenn will be dropping me off at the library front door!

McCubbin: Take a looooong bath, then take a nap with my neurotic cat, Trixie.


BIOS

Ali Liebegott‘s poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. In 1999, Liebegott was the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and in 1997 and 1999, she read her poems and stories nationwide with the notorious Sister Spit’s Ramblin’ Road Show. All that said—her favorite things in life are feeding ducks and teaching adults GED and ESL. She currently lives in San Diego.

Laurenn McCubbin is the creative director for Kitchen Sink Magazine. She is also the illustrator of Rent Girl by Michelle Tea (published by Last Gasp), Quit City by Warren Ellis (published by Avatar), and she is the author and illustrator of the self-published XXX LIVENUDEGIRLS. Her work has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to On Our Backs. You can see more at www.laurennmccubbin.com.

Michelle Tea is the Lambda Award-winning author of Valencia, The Chelsea Whistle, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, The Beautiful and Rent Girl with Laurenn McCubbin. She edited the essay collection Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. Michelle also co-founded the infamous Sister Spit Ramblin’ Road Show.