Interview With Sholeh Wolpé (January 2005)

sholehlrgBorn in Persia, Sholeh Wolpé spent most of her teen years in the Caribbean and Europe, before arriving in the U.S. where she pursued Masters degrees in Radio-TV-Film and Public Health. Her most recent book of poetry is The Scar Saloon (Red Hen Press), and her poems and translations have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. Sholeh is the director and host of the Poetry at the Loft series, in Redlands, Ca., where she says poets are treated like “royalty.” She is currently finishing a new book of translations and a new volume of her own work, while doing readings up and down the West Coast and across the country later this year.

How much and where have you toured in the U.S.? What kinds of responses do you get to your work, especially in recent years?

Sholeh Wolpé: I have been fortunate to have been able to take my book around the country. My tour schedule is posted on my website, www.sholeh.info. So far I have been to Tahoe, Las Vegas, Boston, Cambridge, New Hampshire, the San Francisco area and Atlanta, and soon I’ll be heading to Arizona, Vancouver, Seattle and Austin. I was invited to read at the Austin International Poetry Festival, and I’m looking forward to that. It is an honor to be featured alongside such luminaries as Naomi Shihab Nye and Tony Hoagland.

The response to The Scar Saloon has been great. People feel the poems, and often I see tears in the eyes of the audience.

Tell us about The Scar Saloon.

SW: The book is divided into two sections. The first is pretty much a tour of the Middle-East and sometimes beyond. It is about human beings. It is about looking at the world with empathy and compassion. The second section contains poems that are sometimes personal, other times whimsical. I think the two sections balance each other.

Many of your poems call attention to a tragic event, like a shooting or a bombing, that, once it’s reported (if it’s reported), society seems to hasten to forget, or at least to move on to the next one. What calls you to revisit and to reflect on these moments? What do you hope to achieve with your poems?

SW: That is a great question, what does any poet try to achieve with his or her poetry? I want the readers or the audience to revisit these events without judgment, without preconceived notions. I want them to see the people who populate my poems as human beings—even the terrorist captured and put in a hole as in “Prisoner in a Hole.” I want us to see that no matter what, we are all human beings and most of the time each believes that he or she holds the truth—the only truth. I wish we could move past that. Entertain doubt, keep the flame of “search” burning. Without that flame, “truth” (if there is only one) cannot have any meaning or form in darkness.

What inspires your poetry? What most often in your everyday life sparks the idea of a poem in your head?

SW: The universe is one long poem. I think some of us just tap into that poem and snatch little pieces of it and translate it into words. Every poem is a translation of this sort. And in a sense everyone is a poet, and those of us who have a way with words or care about words have this urgency to translate our poems into words, hence we become “poets.”

When you are writing a poem, do you think about how you might perform it in front of an audience? Or do you think about how it works on the page first, how it captures a particular voice or idea, and then the performance aspect comes later?

SW: When writing a poem, I never think about performance. But I do think about the music of the words. For me, what makes a poem a poem and not a piece of prose is its music and form. And I tend to like short poems, ones that fit in one page. When I write, I can write everything I need to say, translating the piece of universe I happen to tap into, then like a sauce on a burner I slowly simmer the poem, until what is left is the essence of what needs to be said. Often it is intense, yet its taste lingers on the tongue.

And through the editing process I keep reading it out loud, because I have to hear its melody. If you subscribe to the latest scientific theory about the makeup of the universe, the String Theory, it tells us that the most basic constituents of our words are tiny identical strings, and depending on their vibrations, things are what they are. What makes this table a table and this keyboard a keyboard is the difference in vibrations of the strings making up the table or the keyboard. Perhaps that’s why music has such a profound effect on us. After all, it is nothing but vibrations. So for me the melody of a poem is very important.

Right now, I’m translating selected poems of Iran’s most important twentieth-century female poet, Forough Farrokhzad. Translating her poems has been a beautiful challenge, because I’m attempting to not only translate the poems but also their music. Hopefully I can finish the manuscript by July 2005. And I’m almost finished with my next manuscript (my own poems): The Rooftops of Tehran.

What do you love/hate about touring?

SW: I believe we are all part of an amazing and beautiful web; that our lives and spirits are connected to one another. What I love about touring is being able to meet people I may otherwise never know, even though I am connected to them in a wonderful and inexplicable way. Just last night I met an amazing artist here in Santa Cruz who probably is going to become a life-long friend. This happens all the time. I love connecting with other human beings, and sometimes I bond almost immediately with them.

Also, it’s great to read my poems to different groups of people. It is like sharing a part of myself with them and so far I have been received with open arms. There is so much love in this world and it’s great to step into it.

Having said all that, what I hate about touring, since you ask, is … nothing. Actually I dislike that word: “hate.” I try to avoid it.

What is the strangest place you’ve ever performed?

SW: I don’t want to name names, but there was this one venue where the host had misspelled my name in his flier and also had not bothered to learn how to pronounce it. That was awkward. Also just recently I was the only poet in a variety show and as it turned out I went on stage after a sex worker read a very erotic—actually hardcore porno—short story. But it turned out OK. The audience quieted down for my reading. You could hear a pin drop and this was an audience of 100 plus, in a bar. So I felt the people in my poems got the respect they deserved. All in all, it was a great experience.

In addition to being an artist, you also have your own medical business and a degree in public health. How do those two pursuits intersect? Do they?

SW: I have a masters degree in Radio/TV/Film and one in Public Health. This enabled me to make PSAs and documentaries in the health field. Initially it was my intention to make soap operas in Latin America, inserting public health messages like breastfeeding or using condoms in the programs. You know? If the beautiful heroine of the story is breastfeeding her child, that has a positive impact on the viewers. However, for reasons I won’t go into right now, I ended up in Southern California and began making health documentaries. When I became a mother, I stopped doing that and started my company, so I can make money and support my writing habit. My husband, Allan, has also been very supportive. He is a wonderful man.

You host a series of readings called Poetry at the Loft in Redlands, Ca. What are they like? What kinds of work do you feature? If a poet was interested in featuring at the Loft, what should they do? Should they contact you directly?

SW: Reading at Poetry at the Loft is a very special experience. I treat our poets like royalty. They often stay at my home, which is unique, spacious and comfortable, I cook for them or take them out to dinner, then they read in our beautiful space at the historic Mitten Building, downtown Redlands, then we go out for drinks or coffee after the reading, often with others, and I make sure they feel like they are on a holiday. I let them know and feel how much we appreciate them as poets. I come from a culture where poets are like rock stars. So I treat them accordingly and demand the same from our audience.

We are located in a gorgeous historical building. The space itself is amazing. When I began this poetry series, under the auspices of the Performance Loft, my goal was to bring dynamic poets who read their work well. I wanted to bring poetry to the lives of people who never read
poems or if they did, they never attended readings. With the support of Producers of the Performance Loft and Poets & Writers Inc. (through a grant they received from the James Irvine Foundation), we have been able to do just that.

Our season runs from October to May, one a month, the second Wednesday of each month. So there aren’t that many spots to fill, and I am very selective as to who reads at the Loft. I almost never book a poet I have not seen perform. We have a loyal but fragile audience. I don’t want to lose them. But, I’m always happy to hear from poets who are performing in the LA area so I can come and hear them.

What three things are critical to take with you on tour?

SW: My laptop, my notebook, and underwear.

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

SW: Ask my son if he still knows who I am. Often he says no, then bends down and gives me a kiss. He is fourteen years old and is six foot five inches tall. Wears size 15 shoes.

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Interview With Corrina Bain (December 2004)

corrinalrgCorrina Bain is a Worcester, Mass., born-and-bred poet who has been performing poetry since the age of 14. She has participated on three National Poetry Slam teams, most recently representing Providence, RI, this year, and she is the assistant coordinator of the Worcester Youth Poetry Collective. Her work appears in several anthologies. And she is only 21. In January, she embarks by bus on the second half of her first national tour, with Mallory Kaczmarek. Letsdoitontheroad.com checked in with her via email before she hit the road.

What’s your itinerary for this tour? Where have you been so far? How long and how far are you going?

Corrina Bain: This is more like 2 tours, really. Morris Stegosaurus and I have already done a bunch of shows in the northeast, then went down to Oklahoma City, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi, McAllen, Albuquerque, and Denver. After New Year’s, Mallory Kaczmarek and I will be doing Vancouver, Seattle, a string of shows in northern Arizona, and a couple shows in southern California.

How did you put the tour together?

CB: Morris Stegosaurus and I did the first leg of the tour together. He did all the booking, which was indispensible. Morris, if you’re unfamiliar, is one of the most inventive, unique, fun to watch performance poets working today, and he’s been on the finals stage more than once, so being part of a package with him made a lot of things easier. The rest of the tour, which I’m doing with Mallory Kaczmarek, I booked myself, doing some semblance of networking through people I’ve met at NPS. Mallory has been on 2 New England youth slam teams, and has a strength of spirit and unity of vision that I haven’t found anywhere else.

You began performing at the age of fourteen. What originally drew you to the stage and to poetry?

CB: I’ve lived all my life in Worcester, Massachusetts. It’s enough to make you want to scream, with a microphone even. There is, oddly, a really vibrant and interesting poetry scene in Worcester, however, there is really nothing else. It may not be a good answer, but it’s the answer.

What’s your favorite thing about touring/performing?

CB: Those are two very different questions. Touring has been incredible as far as seeing more of the country and getting a better sense of the diversity of voices and aesthetics within the slam family. It’s been very informative, and I recommend it. Performing is something else. The idea of communicating anything to anyone accurately, whether it’s in a performance or not, is essentially a very hopeful concept. I like to think it’s the driving force behind most of what I do.

You’ve been on three National Slam teams, most recently representing Providence, RI, in 2004. What’s it like competing in the National Slam?

CB: Nationals is like any slam, only more so. More interpersonal politics, more intensity, more people forgetting that it’s a game. If you look at it as a good show and a way to meet people, it’s a lot of fun.

When is your favorite time to write? First thing in the morning, on the bus, in the wee hours? Can you describe your writing process a bit?

CB: I write mostly when I’m trying to sleep. I have no consistent pattern. I generally wish I edited more than I actually do.

What’s the strangest place you’ll be performing at? Have ever performed at?

CB: Last Nationals, Providence was in a bout on the President Casino, which is a boat. A casino boat. That’s about as bad as it’s been.

What advice do you have for anyone planning a spoken-word tour? For anyone aspiring to be a spoken-word artist?

CB: For those planning a tour, milk any friends you have who have already been on tour for all they’re worth. That’s what I did. I don’t think there’s that much aspiration involved in being a spoken-word artist. You just start talking. Unfortunately, everyone has to start at square one. It’s almost never pretty.

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

CB: Is this serious? Oh, god. Tampons? Ha.

What’s the first thing you plan to do when you get back?

CB: If by back, you mean home, and by home, you mean where the heart is, I’m going to eat his face like an ice cream sandwich.

Interview With Rachel Kann (November 2004)

Rachel Kann is the founder and host of the monthly co-lab:ORATION Series held at Los Angeles’ Temple Bar. She has produced two spoken-word CDs, including the brand-new “Word to the WHY’S,” and several chapbooks. Letsdoitontheroad.com caught up with her on her recent swing through New York. She returns home to co-lab on December 5. To find out more about her, view video clips of her performances or snag copies of her CDs and chapbooks, visit her website Inspirachel.com.

rachelRachel Kann is the founder and host of the monthly co-lab:ORATION Series held at Los Angeles’ Temple Bar. She has produced two spoken-word CDs, including the brand-new “Word to the WHY’S,” and several chapbooks. Letsdoitontheroad.com caught up with her on her recent swing through New York. She returns home to co-lab on December 5. To find out more about her, view video clips of her performances or snag copies of her CDs and chapbooks, visit her website Inspirachel.com.

How is the tour going so far? Is this your first national tour?

Rachel Kann: Tour is going absolutely FANTASTIC so far! When I tell people the span of it (Sept. 9th to Dec. 3rd, from Cali to Mass. and back again), they kind of look at me in blinking shock, a mix of amazement and horror and admiration, and say things like, “You’re a girl driving alone, cross country?” And it’s true, it is kinda wacky, but like most big things (I am Libran), I thought about it and weighed it out and looked at it from all angles before I did it. And then out of no place, boom, I just kinda planned it out way last minute and went on tour!

I really wanted to do it; the things that held me back were:

  • fear of driving alone cross country as a female (it’s true!)
  • lack of desire to couch surf (I really don’t like to feel like I am putting people out or mooching, and this kind of tour requires you to depend on other people to an extent, and it is kinda hard for me to receive; that’s been one of my lessons on this tour. Plus, there’s the issue of staying at people’s houses whom I never even met before. I haven’t had to do it much, but there is that x-factor, and there are horror stories out there.)
  • the overwhelming task of planning a tour all by myself. ugh.
  • wanting to have my latest CD completed before I left.

Eventually I just bit the bullet and was like, “OK, Rach, you have a Saturn, you can sleep with one eye open, you can plan this tour, and you can burn CDs … barcode notwithstanding. Y’know? You ain’t gettin’ any younger, do this now.”

I had the amazing undeniable impetus to beat all motivators for this tour. I have a dear, dear friend, Jen Swain, out in Providence, RI, who is currently battling cancer (and kicking its ASS, I might add!) and I knew I wanted to get out and see her and be with her. I was trying to decide when to go out there, and she told me she was having a fundraiser benefit September 20th, and I agreed to do it. Of course. And then I was thinking, “Do I fly? Hmmm … I want to stay out there for a while, and if I have my car, I could be a lot more helpful than a burden,” and I was broke (starving artist blah blah), even getting a plane ticket seemed hectic. And then I was like, why not just plan a tour around it? It just made sense.

This is definitely my lengthiest and most in depth national tour. I was on the SlamAmerica tour in 2000, the brainchild of the badass Gary Mex Glazner. It was on a sweet bus and went cross-country with different poets rotating in and out. I was on the bus from San Francisco to Santa Fe. Then in April of 2003, I was a part of the Chicks in Arms tour, which was organized by superhero-rockstar-you-all-need-to-know Sheila Nicholls. We went up and down the west coast, to Seattle and back, in a converted school bus, with some of the most amazing women I have had the pleasure of knowing.

In November of last year, I toured all the way to Minneapolis and back, so that was pretty huge and far (I love my Saturn so much), but it was a quickie, only a few weeks. This is definitely my largest undertaking by a lot.

What’s your goal as a poet? What draws you to performance? To going on tour?

RK: My goal as a poet is a constantly shifting thing. It’s more a mosaic of current objectives. You know? I didn’t become a poet because of any perceived goal I wanted to accomplish; I started writing cause the words needed out. My right-now-goals are:

  • to become more evolved as a writer, to be a better writer. I am always trying to improve my quality on the page. I am trying to get myself some training. I don’t wanna jinx myself so I won’t say anything else about that, but WILL keep you posted.
  • to get my children’s book, “You Sparkle Inside” published.
  • to get a record label to put me out, the level of quality of the musical production I have on my tracks right now is ridiculous. The sound is so quality. Tack Fu, Michael Gardner, Stephen Davis, and Enduser are the producers I have been working with.
  • to publish a real book of poetry that I don’t have to staple together.

As far as performance goes, performance is just in my bones. I started ballet when I was 3 and continued in a very serious way with that until I was 17. At that point I segued into theatre. So I have been a performer for as long as I can remember. I don’t know a life without being on stage.

I am drawn to touring because any reason to get out of LA and see the rest of the country is a good one! And I love to experience different people and poetry. I receive so much being on tour.

Tell us about Inspirachel.com and your new CD.

RK: Back in 2000, I was approached by a friend of a dear friend (Amy Steinberg). His name was Andy Coules, he lived in England, and he wanted to build my website, for free. He is literally an angel in my life. He still maintains the site, and I still have no money, so you can see what a wonderful man he is. When we decided to dive in (we created the whole thing through IM conversations!), I was certainly not at a place in my life where I was like, “Y’know what I need? A website!” So we had fun with it. And it is a great place to disseminate information.

My new CD is rough and amazing. Again, because of the producers I am so blessed to work with. I cannot believe how lucky I am to have such sick-ass music backing my poems. It is the best I have heard thus far, in terms of musical quality. And I made a real effort to not have it all be just hip-hop beats with poetry over it, which is such an easy thing to do. This has some darker, more melodious stuff.

How did the co-lab:ORATION series come about? It’s an unusual format for the spoken-word, slam poetry scene. (Everyone whoperforms does so with at least one other person.)

RK: The co-lab series came about because I created it myself from the ground up based on what I wanted to
see more of in LA. I wanted to see people be less about themselves and more about the art. So it seemed to me that a good way to do that was to force them to work together, on stage. You really have to get out of your own head to make that work. And the right artists just organically and slowly came together. I am so blessed (there’s that “blessed” word again! but it’s true) to work with such an unbelievably talented and good-hearted group of musicians and artists. It is kind of unreal.

A lot of your work talks about desire/fantasy/perception. Has performing/touring informed or changed your ideas about those concepts?

RK: I don’t know that it has, any more than life experience always informs my work. I know that I find it more and more important to be outspoken and talk about sex on stage as a means of empowerment. Why can’t a woman be a feminist and experience desire? There is the whole virgin/whore thing STILL so prevalent in our culture. It is important to me to present a multifaceted picture to other women.

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

RK: The great thing about being a poet is you really don’t need ANYTHING when it comes right down to it. Not even a mic! Just a voice. But, I would be unable to tour without:

  1. My car. Duh. But I love my little Saturn! I got it new in April of 2003, and it has almost 50,000 miles on it from all my touring, and it has never had the slightest problem. Yes, I am knocking on wood right now!
  2. BOOKS ON TAPE! They rock, they are the best, they make all the driving (almost) a pleasure. I would be SOOOOO bitter to tour without books on tape. They are my crack. I love them beyond measure. I am currently listening to the end of the “Dark Tower” series by Stephen King. I am on book six, “Song of Susannah.” OH MY GOD I LOVE THEM SO MUCH!
  3. Hate it/love it: the cellphone! On tour, the cellphone is so helpful. I cannot imagine touring without it. Getting lost, something happening with the car, etc. It seems awful without a celly.

What’s the first thing you plan to do when you get home?

RK: GET BACK TO THE GYM!

Are you leaving anyone at home? Meeting anyone on the road?

RK: Ha. Ha. No comment. That’s all classified.

You’re ending your tour back at co-lab. Are you already looking forward to returning home? If someone wants to feature at or participate in co-lab, what should they do?

RK: I am excited to give all of co-lab a big hug, but I am not homesick at all, I am really having a great time. But yeah, anybody interested in co-lab should just email me at mail [at] inspirachel [dot] com. The show is 12/5 at the Temple Bar.

Interview With Daphne Gottlieb (November 2003)

Photo: David Huang
Photo: David Huang

San Francisco-based writer Daphne Gottlieb’s work has appeared on Nerve.com and in numerous journals and anthologies. She won the 2002 Firecracker Alternative Press Special Recognition Award, and was short-listed for the 2002 Lambda for Best Lesbian Poetry. She also co-organized the first conference of women spoken-word artists in September 2002, ForWord Girls. Letsdoitontheroad.com caught up with her while she was getting ready to embark on her 20-city tour to promote her latest book of poetry and film criticism, Final Girl, published by Soft Skull Press. For her most recent adventures, visit her website daphnegottlieb.com.

How did you start planning this tour? Any advice for planning a tour?

Daphne Gottlieb: I’ve toured for every book I’ve had published (and sometimes for no other reason than a good offer!), so it seemed natural to tour with this book as well. I’ve been really lucky and awed by Tennessee Jones at Soft Skull, who has put the lion’s share of this
tour together for me. He’s done an amazing job, and it’s been a huge luxury to have someone else do the huge amount of work that this entails.

Every time I’ve toured, I’ve done it myself. Having done that, my advice would be to talk to folks who have recently been on the road–where were they treated well? What did they love? Assess your financial and personal capabilities–how long can you afford to stay on the road for? Personally? Economically? Emotionally? Make reasonable decisions about what’s reasonable for you: How often can you perform? How long can you drive? How often do you need a day off? Choose your tourmates carefully, and make sure they have the same priorities that you do.

How many times have you gone on tour? Where/when?

DG: I’d gone to a few regional festivals like the Albuquerque Poetry Festival, and I’d had the good luck to be included on Sister Spit’s fall ’98 tour. I toured the country with Thea Hillman in ’99, and hit up the southwest with Eitan Kadosh, Eirik Ott and Eirean Bradley in ’00. In ’01, I made another lap around the country on the Ignition Tour (with Eitan, Alexis O’Hara and Tarin Towers). In between, I’ve hit SXSW, Bumbershoot and some cities occasionally, for festivals and the like. I’m about to leave for 2 months on the road–the first 6 weeks by myself (aided and abetted by a cast of local guest stars: Maggie Estep, DC’s Mothertongue, Atlanta’s Cliterati and more) and then 2 weeks or so up the west coast with Hal Sirowitz.

What’s the best/worst thing that ever happened to you on the road?

DG: The worst thing was probably being hit in the head by a van door on the Ei-Ei-Oh-the-Humanity Tour by a sleepy tourmate. I got a concussion and felt like hell. I was too ill to be scared, I think.

The best thing is always the unexpected generosity and kindness of strangers–the sudden intimacies of kinship where it’s not foreseen–and the sporadic joy of driving along the highway to something too loud, driving too fast, while the rest of the world goes to its day jobs.

What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about being on the road?

DG: My favorite thing is the people (as described above). My least favorite thing is disappointment and loneliness–the missed connection, the show where no one comes, the emotional and physical fatigue and/or getting sick (and, not surprisingly, these things seem often to coincide).

What are three things you absolutely cannot go on tour without?

DG: Felicity the Road Whore, my pink satin stuffed bunny, my cell phone, my pillow–you need your pillow. It’s home away from home. It smells like you; it’s the right height and the right firmness. Ohhh yes. (I’m an insomniac so this is VERY important.)

Do you write when you are on the road?

DG: Not much more than livejournal entries. I’m too busy trying to make sense of everything and keep my balance and take care of myself, when I’m not getting where I’m going, catching up with old friends, performing or trying to sleep.

What’s the strangest place you’ve ever performed?

DG: You know, I had a couple of really entertaining answers to this (an ersatz sex club, a gas station parking lot, etc.). And this is the “wrong” answer–since the venue wasn’t what was odd, but unanticipated and heartbreaking–but the most surreal place I’ve ever performed was my mother’s memorial service. Never expected to. Never wanted to. And told everyone I wouldn’t speak, even though she was my best friend. And the night before the service, a poem came tumbling out of me. And I read it. And made it through without bawling like a baby. Barely. It was one of the somehow cruelest and most redeeming moments of my life: to do something so crushingly hard and so absolutely useless that meant absolutely everything.

What have you learned from going on tour–about yourself or the world at-large?

DG: Not to speed in Texas with California plates. Not to be bullied by tourmates. That pork is a vegetable in Texas. To eat and sleep regularly, even when you don’t think you need it. That there are amazing people all over the country. That there’s a huge country in between the coasts. That time zone changes matter when trying to make it to a reading on time. That everything they say about ugly Americans is probably true. That sometimes it is absolutely justified to steal your host’s apple jacks when they make bacon at 2am and don’t give you any. That hangovers at altitude are brutal. That there’s unexpected beauty, wisdom and joy where you least expect it. That 24 hours later, things can be and will be–inevitably–completely different.

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

DG: Kiss my girlfriend and hug my cats.

When will the next ForWord Girls conference be?

DG: There’s been talk about doing it again in the spring of ’04–I’d love to do it again. My hands are tied until I get back from touring, but I’m going to send an email out right now! We need to get on this! 🙂