Award-winning poet and Tempo contributor, Dorian “Paul D” Rogers chatted with poet Samantha Thornhill about her poetic endeavors and upcoming trip to the UAE in 2015.
Paul D: You were born in Trinidad but raised mostly in the states. How did those years in your homeland impact your perspective?
Samantha: Trinidad & Tobago is a nation comprised of people of African and East Indian descent. I grew up seeing doctors, lawyers, policeman, judges, and business owners of color. When I came to the States, particularly the media images that were being presented to me showed a world where whites were in positions of power, while blacks, in particular, were subjugated. Doctors were white. Janitors were black. Prisoners were black. Guards and wardens were white. Because I came from a country where people of colour ran things, I knew that what I was seeing on the screen was not reflective of the reality I’d known. This is just one example of many.
Paul D: That sounds like a major perspective shift. We met at Florida State University in 2001, and, since then, we’ve both accomplished a lot in poetry and spoken word. What would you consider your best accolade in poetry?
Samantha: I was once asked to headline at Celebrate Brooklyn at Prospect Park Bandshell (a venue that holds thousands of people) with Trinidad’s best calypsonian, David Rudder. For the few months leading up to this performance, I lived with pure dread. It would have been my biggest audience to date—many of them Trinidadians—and there’s something about performing for your own (and young people!) that is scarier than performing for any other group. At nights, I tossed, and turned at the thought of getting booed off a stage where people were going to hear the sweet sounds of David Rudder…not this poet! I don’t remember a period of time where I doubted myself so much. Next thing I knew, I was backstage, hearing the announcer read my bio to a crowd of thousands, and as soon as she said my name, something happened. I kicked off my shoes, and walked onto stage barefoot; I’d never felt that powerful and confident in my life! I performed for forty minutes flawlessly, which resulted in a standing ovation. I learned a lot that day. That my inner reserves are more ready than I’ll ever be.
Paul D: That’s a beautiful story. It shows what can be achieved when you believe in your craft. After performing and publishing for more than ten years, how would you say the poetry scene has changed?
Samantha: Because many of the performance poets of our generation are elbow deep in the youth sector, we are basically raising a new generation of poets that are killing the game! If you’ve seen Brave New Voices on HBO, you’ll see that something really special has taken force in the past ten years with the youth voice. You also see poets that started out in spoken word/ performance poetry self publishing books and producing their own CD’s now “legitimizing” themselves by pursuing MFA’s, getting books published with independent and trade presses, and landing adjunct teaching opportunities poised toward a tenure track life. After Black on Black Rhyme, another poetry organization that changed the game for me (and for many others), is Cave Canem, which I argued has changed the face of American poetry by making it a few shades darker. Cave Canem started out as a workshop retreat for black poets; it has since expanded into an institution in the minds of the lives it has touched, which includes mine!
Paul D: I agree. It has been beautiful to see poets perform at the Pentagon and do voice-over work for major companies. Do you agree that there are some opportunities for poets to make a living full-time in this art form?
Samantha: A small percentage of us are actually making a living as traveling/performing poets; most of us teach to pay the bills. You have to be an entrepreneur and fall into a niche that will support this habit!
Paul D: You took a more literary approach and earned a MFA in Poetry from University of Virginia- Charlottesville. What reason did you take the more academic route?
Samantha: Once I chose poetry as my path, to pursue the MFA in poetry was a natural next step for me to move towards having longevity in this field. I also knew that having an advanced degree in some form of creative writing would sharpen my tools, and make me a more viable candidate for teaching jobs, and such. My grandparents in Trinidad were schoolteachers, and though I was never trained to be an educator, as we say in Trinidad, goat don’t make sheep! It’s in my blood.
Paul D: You have taught poetry classes for a few years now at the prestigious Julliard Institute in New York City. Tell us briefly about that experience.
Samantha: I’ve been teaching acting majors at the Juilliard School for a decade. Every Spring semester, the first year actors in the conservatory program take my poetry class once a week. It is a craft class; the curriculum is designed to create a safe space in which they generate their own work once a week, and share the work, which goes through a revision process, culminating into a performance at the end—once in public, and also for the entire drama division. It has been an immense joy to help to mold world class talent into more expressive beings, and to see them bloom in their writing across the semester. To watch their relationship with language, themselves, and each other deepen. I know how important that is.
Paul D: Would you suggest this route to aspiring writers and performers that would like to do poetry full-time?
Samantha: The MFA is a tricky discussion, because I don’t think it’s for everybody, and it did change my writing and my relationship to writing, and the jury is still out on what was good and what was not so good about that. But I got to work with poets like Rita Dove who taught me so much about craft. I was never the same. Getting my MFA did make me a more desirable candidate for the excellent teaching positions that I’ve been holding at Juilliard and the Bronx Academy of Letters, where I serve as a writer in residence.
Paul D: You co-founded Poets in Unexpected Places (PUP) and was even featured in the New York Times with your group. Explain PUP.
Samantha: PUP is a group I co-founded with some dear friends to bring poetry to the people in dynamic and unforgettable ways, often drawing on other disciplines (such as music, and dance) to augment the poetry. We are often referred to as a poetry flash mob because the element of surprise is a huge factor in what we do. We began on the Q train, and have since put on poetry installations on ferries, in stores, parks, Laundromats, etc. The NY Times piece put us on many radars, and we were invited to stage installations in museums, schools and colleges, and theater spaces. So, we occasionally end up in no so unexpected places, though always in unexpected ways.
Paul D: Way before I started going to countries that I thought were off of the map when it came to place for poetry touring, I was inspired by your travels with poetry and writing. What are some of your favorite poetry experiences abroad?
Samantha: I’ve had some of my most powerful poetry experiences on the African continent; mainly South Africa and Swaziland. On the second time I was invited to do poetry in South Africa, it was during the 2010, World Cup, and I remember arriving in Cape Town on the same day as the opening kick off, which was happening in the stadium. I was in the streets while people, in their yellow jerseys, celebrated, blowing their vuvuzelas. I did not know what I was doing there for poetry during the World Cup, but I managed to get around to several cities, as well as Swaziland for a well organized string of performances, sometimes during half times inside matches. South Africa now feels like a coming home. I also had some indelible experiences in Hungary, Greece, and Bermuda.
Paul D: What can we expect to see from you in the next three to five years?
Samantha: Hopefully a couple of long awaited publications, as well as a documentary that I’ve been producing and directing on the prison system’s affect on children will be available. More travels are on the menu, and maybe even a memoir or short film about some of these travels.
Paul D: I would love to get you here in 2015 to feature in Abu Dhabi and Dubai so you can hear some of the great, traditional Arabic poetry and some of our Western poetry from expatriates in the region? Would you like to visit?
Samantha: As we say in Trinidad…how you mean? Of course I would love to come to Abu Dhabi. I’ve only been in the Emirates for layovers on my way to South Africa, and when we fly over the EAU, I always look down in awe, and I’m happy to say I know the man that created a space for poetry there.
Paul D: What would you recommend for a novice poet that is no longer a beginner but stuck on a plateau before the next step of expert. How can they take their work to the next level?
Samantha: Read the experts.