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: 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

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

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 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:

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 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:

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 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:

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:

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.


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

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.

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, 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.

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. 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. 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

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. 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

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 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?


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 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. 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

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! 🙂

%d bloggers like this: