TC Tolbert Interviews Performance Poet Sonya Renee Taylor

The blog Persephone Speaks is a project of Kore Press, an excellent feminist literary press based in Arizona. Persephone Speaks features interviews with authors and performers about the creative process, gender issues, social justice and antiwar activism, and much more.

Their latest newsletter introduced me to the work of performance poet Sonya Renee Taylor. Her first full-length collection of poetry, A Little Truth on Your Shirt , has just been released by GirlChild Press. See this video of her powerful and heartbreaking poem “Still Life” from the National Poetry Slam:

TC Tolbert, a genderqueer feminist poet and educator, recently interviewed Renee for Persephone Speaks. The two artists talk about sexual identity, the difference between poetry written for the stage and for the page, and the challenges of telling difficult personal truths in a way that is also healing and respectful toward the people in your life. Here’s an excerpt:

TC: How do we, as artists, – or, do we – consider the reader or audience? At what point do their needs influence what we create?

SR: It’s difficult. Nothing starts, for me, with the reader. It starts with me and my place in the experience, in the observation, in the thought process. That’s where it starts, for me. My decision to share that is about where I believe the reader exists in the work. There are things that I have written that I feel very clear that the reader does not exist at all in that work. And I feel very clear about that. Usually the poem will tell me if it is for more than just me. And if the poem tells me that, then I share it.

TC: A personal question I found myself wondering – has her mom read this? Has her dad read this? How do the folks who are very much present in this work, how do they respond? How do you navigate that?

SR: They know that they are in the book. There are a lot of pieces that they have heard already. I read “Penance” to my mother long before I considered publishing. We were having a conversation about how I could establish boundaries around her drinking and what I could do that does not re-traumatize me and I didn’t know what to say so I said let me read you this poem. Just yesterday I read the piece, “Dreams for My Father,” on the radio in Portland, Oregon and my father called me b/c he had heard me read it and he said, “When I hear the poem it reminds me that I need to call and tell you I love you unconditionally. So I’m calling to tell you I love you unconditionally.” And this is its own art in that experience b/c that is not where we started when I wrote that piece. The piece, “Fragility of Eggs,” I read to my mother when I first wrote it and she cried and asked me to never do it publicly. I obviously didn’t honor that. And here is my perspective. Whenever the experience impacts me, it becomes my experience. And as an artist, I want to honor the space where that came from. And I’m not going to not tell my truth b/c that makes you uncomfortable. Because it is mine. But what I feel committed to doing is writing from a space that honors, that doesn’t exploit, that shows the humanity in the experience. I can do that. I feel committed to doing that. But I don’t feel committed to keeping other’s secrets, for their sake. Not when it makes them my secrets too.

TC: That is interesting as it relates to other kinds of writing, like memoir, and the expectation that everything that is written is factual. I wonder what is the line in your work between what is factual and what is true?

SR: There is a difference. Truth is often conceptual. Knowing isn’t about detail. It is about core and spirit and synthesis. That is not about detail. That is not about making a left turn instead of a right turn at two in the afternoon. In my work, knowing and truth are about destination. And facts are about roads. How did you get there? Sometimes I absolutely believe in factuality. I am interested often in how do you make fact poetic. Fact is newspaper and newspaper isn’t often poetic and I’m interested in that line between fact and poetry and where do you create that. But I think poetry is about creation and creativity and nuance and language and I feel free to utilize that when I need to. And I feel like the truth in my work is always present. The other thing is that truth, in my work, is never about exploitation. I have read work that is more about exploiting the subject, reader, or audience to get the reaction you want but I never want to exist in that space. My story is about truth and people’s ability to find their own truth in my truth.

Here is a concrete example. In the Bonus section “Liking Me” it is about me and an interaction with a guy who does not want to use a condom. Did that scenario happen in that exact way? No. Have lots of scenarios similar to that happened? Yes. Have those always ended with me being super strong and saying “Get the fuck out of here – I’d rather masturbate.” No. Sometimes I’ve bent. But the truth of my spirit is that I know that I am more important than someone who is getting me to compromise my safety. That is my knowing. And that work is a vehicle to get me to live in my knowing and to get other people to live in their knowing.

Read the whole interview here .

12 comments on “TC Tolbert Interviews Performance Poet Sonya Renee Taylor

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