Thursday, January 21, 2016

Creative Chat: Alyssa Bennett Smith

I am so excited to share the first in a series of interviews with creatives I admire. This month's focus is on poetry, and I reached out to Alyssa Bennett Smith, a tattooed, vegan, Mennonite, feminist poet who also happens to be one of the coolest, most interesting people I know. Thanks so much for letting me interview you, Alyssa!

1// How long have you been writing poetry, and what inspired you to start?
I've been writing poetry since September 18, 2013. The precise start date is weird, I know, but I had a really specific experience that began my writing.  I had been attending an open mic in Kansas City, MO for a few months when I traveled to Kenya for a Conflict Transformation Training as a part of my seminary studies. At the training I was inundated with incredible experiences, introduced to 35 AMAZING peaceworkers, and had to work through a lot of challenges I was experiencing in my own studies.  In the past I had been a visual artist and would process these sorts of experiences in that way, but while in Kenya I didn't have the means to do so. I had the words of so many amazing poets from the open mic running through my head, so I decided to try writing as a means of processing. I wrote my first poem called "Names" while in Kenya, performed it at the open mic after I returned home, and never looked back.

2// How would you describe your writing style? I've been told by a few people that my style is sort of literary. I'm very visual in my writing--I try to paint pictures with words in hopes of creating a space in the readers mind that helps them feel what I was feeling when I wrote the poem.  I can't say that I always do this intentionally, though. I think a lot of it comes from my favorite poets who write in a similar style and create that space for me when I read or watch/listen to their work.

3// Where do you find the inspiration for your work?
At home in Kansas City I was inspired each and every time I went to an open mic or poetry performance with the incredible poets from that city. I often found myself coming home (late), crawling into bed to go to sleep, and then pulling out my phone to write down a line or stanza that was running through my head. It's probably safe to say that late night iPhone notes are where all of my first drafts happen. In addition to live performances I often fall into black holes of YouTube poetry videos. I love to read poetry off the page as well, but I find most inspiration in hearing people perform their work. Button Poetry has a great channel with tons of incredible poets, but my personal favorite (who is occasionally featured on Button, but has her own channel as well) is Sarah Kay.  Her book "No Matter the Wreckage" was published by Write Bloody last year and is one of my favorites--especially the poem "Dragons". Look it up!
Photo credit: William Peck from Metaphor Media

4// Are there other poets you look up to? Who has influenced your writing the most?
The single most influential force on my work has been the incredible group of poets at Poetic Underground (PoUnd) in Kansas City. This open mic is one of the most loving, supportive, and creative communities that I have ever had the pleasure to join. I moved to Denver recently and miss them dearly, although I still talk to many friends from that group regularly and we provide feedback on one another's work. Outside of my friends, Sarah Kay is one of my favorite poets, like I said, and she's also an incredible role model.  She and Phil Kaye (another incredible spoken word poet) founded a non-profit called Project VOICE that helps bring poetry and poetry workshops to schools across the country and across the world.  They're doing such great work and I really admire them for that. 

5// Do you find yourself drawn to particular themes when writing?

My writing seems to move in phases (although I only have two years under my belt, so it's hard to say with certainty!) During my first six months of writing I wrote about 5 or 6 poems that a friend of mine dubbed my "High Fidelity" phase because they were all attempts to make sense of past relationships and the ways in which they impact me now.  Some of my favorite poems are from this phase. In the last year my work has taken a more political turn, mostly about feminism and my experience in the world as a woman. Not everything I write falls into these categories, though. I've written several poems about specific people--my husband, my grandmother, my sister.  Those are often the result of an isolated experience with that person, rather than a theme that I'm experimenting with.

6// Tell me a little bit about your writing process. 
I feel most compelled to write when I'm dealing with really strong emotion. This can be anger, anxiety, fear, joy--anything. Usually an image will pop into my head after a particular experience or something I'm feeling will bring up a memory from the past when I experienced a similar emotion. I'll write down that image and expand on it or try and make a story out of it. Often I will write a stanza or two and hit a dead end. I'll leave those stanzas for a bit and then come back and read the segments that I've collected over a period of time. More often than not I'll find that in these bits and pieces there will be a few that have a similar tone or similar imagery, and I'll work them into one another to make a longer more complete poem.  I don't know how much of a "process" this is, but it's the way my brain works :)

7// Do you have anything you're currently working on?

I just finished a first draft of a piece that I've called "Lost Dimension". It's about how my experience as a woman has been to view myself in two dimensions--in relation to men and in relation to women. A third dimension was lost to me for a long time and this piece was a way for me to explore how I can see myself without having to measure against someone else. It's one of those pieces that was cobbled together from bits I collected over a couple of months, so it still needs some work, but I like how it's coming together!

8// You've also done spoken word poetry, right? How does it feel to perform your work in public?

Spoken word is how I got into writing, so in some ways it feels really normal to me. I don't think I've ever written a poem that I haven't read on stage (though some work better than others as spoken word pieces). The first time I performed I was a WRECK. My hands and voice where shaking. My voice still shakes sometimes when I perform, even in a room full of my friends. Performing a piece that I've just finished is probably one of my favorite things to do. At PoUnd in Kansas City the open mic crowd is mostly poets. And by mostly I mean, in a room of 50 people there might be 5 that don't consider themselves poets.  It's a pretty incredible audience to bounce new work off of and get feedback. There's a freedom in performing work that everyone knows is "in progress" because no one expects it to be super finished or perfect (including me). I love sharing with my friends and getting suggestions for ways to improve.

9// What are you most proud of in your creative journey?

Oh man! That's a tough one... For about a year I helped run PoUnd Slam, the competitive poetry slam team from Poetic Underground.  As co-slammaster (cool title, right?) I got to perform with the team at a number of venues including Folk Alliance International, a huge showcase of folk music, dance, poetry, visual art, and all kinds of other awesome stuff. Performing at the Folk Alliance was a thrill for the whole team and for me, as a VERY new poet, it was incredible. I don't know that I can be "proud" of this necessarily, since I definitely didn't *earn* it, but it's a huge highlight. Another would probably be performing at an annual event in Kansas City called "Poetry's a Drag". This is a fundraiser held every April (National Poetry Month) where female poets dress as men, and male poets dress as women, and we read poems with content that is more stereo-typically masculine or feminine. I've performed in this show for the last two years and it's always a blast.  It's hosted by a drag queen and the poems are usually hilarious and/or filthy. It's a hoot! I hope to be able to be a part of it for many years to come.

10// What advice would you give to those just beginning to explore poetry as a creative outlet?

Find an open mic! Even if you don't plan on performing, watching open mic poetry is a great way to hear tons of diverse poets with all sorts of levels of experience. If you can't find an open mic YouTube is a decent substitute ;) Aside from that, take time for yourself, read, and write. That sounds silly but you would be surprised how many people have had to say it to me when I get writer's block. The most important thing for me has been to making time to clear my mind and let it wander. If my head is full of day-to-day nonsense it's hard for me to be creative because I'm so focused on functioning as an adult in society (I don't know if you've realized this, but it's super hard). I think this is why so many of my poems have their beginnings in late-night notes on my phone after a night with friends at an open mic. When you surround yourself with creativity and leave space to be creative yourself, some really cool things can happen.

You can find Alyssa on Instagram at @alyssa_bennett_smith

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