Photos by Blaze Like Fyre
City Park (Botanical Gardens): City Park is a magical place, multilayered, vast, mysterious, enchanting. It was (is) Native land, the Chapitoulas and Houmas once lived here, before the French came. It was because of those tribes, and their knowledge of alternate, safer routes to the (Misssissippi) River that the land that would later be called New Orleans was even discovered. The spirit of the park resonates with me at a deep level. I typically go to City Park when I need to escape and clear my head. Beneath the moss covered oak trees I nestle my bottom in their roots. I watch the ducks scrample and scuffle for scraps of bread, crakers, or leftover Morning Call beignets. I run, I ride, I attend festivals, view christmas lights, pick herbs with my partner, this place serves as a foundation for many things that bring me joy! I can literally lose myself taking it all in, which was why the city parks were introduced —as a refuge from the squalor of the cities. New Orleans City park, like most of the parks here, wasn’t integrated until the late 1950s. The land that this park is built on was worked by our enslaved Ancestors, after the French Colonization of this area, back when it was Allard Plantation. The ladies wore fabrics dyed with Indigo*, definitely befitting for this location. Sugarcane seems to be the crop that everyone associates with Louisiana, rightfully so, but what most do not realize is that it was Indigo that was the first crops in Louisiana…and it was harvested right here, right on this land. This space is constantly evolving, and there is so much I have yet to discover/uncover here. I am so grateful that this space exists.
*next week’s shoot
Denisio: A few weeks ago I went to visit my mom in Atlanta. While there I did what I always do – riffle through boxes of memories tucked away in the closet for things she has no place for. I looked at old photos of myself, a ten year old me awkward and lanky peering through thick tortoise shell glasses struggling to meet the camera’s gaze. I found old birthday cards yellowed with age and letters to friends I never sent. And then I came across something that had become a legend in my family, so much so that I had begun to question if it ever happened. It was a poem I wrote at age three. The paper was faded and stained but the writing was legible and distinctly mine. I vaguely remember writing this poem and it is the only memory I have from that age. I can remember wanting to tell a story in rhyme, similar to the old primer books my aunt taught me to read from. At that age I loved picture books and something in me wanted to make my own. I can remember wanting the story to be about a chipmunk (I was a devoted fan of Alvin and the Chipmunks) who sees what is presumably a ball (but is really a hibernating raccoon balled up) and takes it up into his tree house and how funny all that would be in my little girl mind. So I wrote it. This is my first memory of creating something.
That poem sparked something in me because all of the subsequent memories I have of my childhood are of me making this or that. Cutting up my mothers clothes to make doll clothes. Coating the kitchen in flour to make homemade play-dough from a recipe I found in a craft book. Making doll furniture from scraps of cardboard and paint. Making robots from old motherboards and wires my father would bring me from work. Mixing all the chemicals in my child’s chemistry set. My hands stayed busy… to the point that my father nicknamed me “Busy Body”.
I have an incessant need to create. A hunger that is never really satisfied. You give birth to something that is equally from your hands and mind, and each time feels special, each time feels new and exciting . For someone who has struggled with the idea of religion, there is something sacred and holy in those moments when I create. I feel present and grounded. My mind is focused on the task and its usual incessant chatter and anxiety over everything dissolves into beautiful, forgiving silence. My breath slows and my muscles slacken. I feel connected to something greater than me. Creating has been the only form of therapy that has not failed me, nor given me an adverse reaction, nor left me in debt because my insurance only allotted for ten sessions not twelve.
There are days when creating is tough, particularly when you’ve made it your business…literally. There are the constant fears that every creative entrepreneur knows well. Periods of blockage that are terrifying and heartbreaking. The little voice crouched in the dark places of your brain that insists you’ll run out of ideas. That people will stop buying and being interested. That you will have to return to cubicle nation. That nothing you do is original or special or even particularly good.
The voice can get nasty.
And it cloaks itself as logic.
Recently, I’ve been battling the little voice and navigating myself back to that honest place of creating. Creating just to create and leaving the rest of it in my own closet of things I have no place for. Getting back to my place of focus and forgiving silence.
“To my mom, thank you for introducing poetry to me as something more than the writing of dead white men and depressed white women.”
This quote is the first dedication in my collection of poems Becoming//Black (Feb, 2015). Growing up as the strange kid who was insecurely outgoing so she shamefully quieted parts of herself for acceptance in real life, I found a freedom in creating other realities with my words and living fully in their constructed safety. I was learning early how writing could be an escape, a path to another self in another place, but I had yet to realize it could also be a road back to discovering your true self.
When I was a small girl, I would write creative stories like The 5 Golden Rings. This particular elementary school short story was about 2 boys who discovered magic rings and fought off a witch and evil dragon who lived alarmingly close to their neighborhood. While I loved the creative outlet and escapism that storytelling/writing provided me, looking back, I realized unless I was writing specifically about an outing with my family, my stories didn’t contain myself or anyone like me. Ever. For instance, the main protagonists in The 5 Golden Rings were two white boys (the witch was green, but really she was probably an ol’ white lady who turned green cuz she was a witch in my child head lol). As much as I loved writing, and even though my dad studied African literature and strongly encouraged me to keep writing, writing was something that was taught to me to listen to with a Eurocentric ear to the point where it was reflected in my own writing. People like me were not the heroes of my stories. They weren’t even the villains. I was a budding, passionate writer who had learned a creative process that involved and embraced almost everything my creative mind could muster except anything that was actually a reflection of myself. I was simply absent from my own imagination. I was the first person to write me out of my own story.
Though I loved writing creative stories, I had a distinct hared for poetry growing up. I think my mind is naturally analytical and inquisitive and better suited for the sciences, but a heavy heart and weak eyelids that don’t hold the water my body makes well has always pulled me towards the arts and expression. When it came to poetry though, what I was exposed to in school either bored me out of my mind, or, as embarrassed as I used to be to admit it, I just didn’t understand most of the page poetry that was presented as ‘the greatest’ (I also wasn’t yet questioning who got to claim literary greatness…). I would get frustrated that these ‘greats’ seemed more concerned with using flowery language then telling the stories of the stems and petals. I remember once having to do some school assignment on Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening after hearing my teacher gush about his status as a well known and respected poet. I read the piece over and over trying to decipher some meaning and figure out why this poem was so well regarded, but I couldn’t (spoiler alert…still can’t). I didn’t understand how poetry was considered an expressive writing form based on what I was exposed to which confused me. I knew felt most alive when I wrote generally, whether it was essays for school or journal entries I kept hidden, but poetry seemed like a rotting corpse stinking up all of my English classrooms. In middle school, I felt most connected to the storytelling found in Hip Hop and wrote a lot of verses with my best friend MoniQue (aka Locksy) and my DJ, who now goes by Marvelito. FreeQuency actually used to be my rap name too and, because all rappers have meaner alter egos, that’s where FreeQ tha Mighty moniker also started to have an actual use (though not so used anymore cuz poets aren’t like that lol. I can hear yall cackling while reading this. Leave high school me alone! I thought I was so cool and hip). I even put out a mixtape, won a rap competition and was on the local radio spitting verses at a time, but that is another story for another post.
There were two defining moments that shaped me as a poet and allowed me to start viewing myself as a creator that I think to often. The first was when my mom took me to see a show from a youth arts and activism group called “Project 2050”. The group was made up of young Black and Brown people and their allies doing all kinds of art through a social justice lens. In particular, of the step dancers, DJs, breakdancers, rappers and other performers, there was something sitting in an audience and rediscovering poetry through spoken word as a 6th grader as it came from mouths that could have been my own that fundamentally changed my relationship to poetry. Inspired by young people who looked like me telling their stories made me think I could, and even should do it. I went home feeling like I wanted to write poetry, but scared because I didn’t know how to write what I had seen on stage. Not only did I not know how to write my own story, I wasn’t sure I had anything that was worth writing about.
I started writing after that experience and joined Project 2050 at the start of high school. In that group, I started writing more and more with the support of the young people and artists of color around me, though at the time I didn’t really have my own voice, I was doing that awkward and annoying thing that happens in performance poetry where people try to make what works for others work for them. Still, space like this was critically important in me continuing to write and to begin to see myself as a writer because school was still not a space I felt comfortable or even safe exploring myself through non-academic writing. I had a wonderful English teacher, goofy, young white ginger named Beck whose incorporated an array of poetry and other artistic content into an English course I took in 9th grade that expanded my definition of poetry and both allowed me to put myself and my vulnerability into my work and taught me how uncomfortable white audiences are with Black writing.
One of the books he choose for class was For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. That book had such an impact on my as a young Black woman and Beck allowed me to do an extra credit project where I wrote my own monologue/character into the choreopoem and performed it for the class (he was a theatre person so was really into performance). Looking back, I wish he hadn’t made me perform it, because I don’t think we’d had enough real conversations about race to hold space for Black expression in that classroom. I wrote my piece from the perspective of the “The Lady in Black” (basically my depression. I remember one line because I started crying when I said it “I wanted to free fall into the barrel of a smoking gun”. I really wish I had held onto it). When I finished, I felt so out of place in the center of the white gaze of my classmates and teacher which was so foreign to me because of my experiences of writing and performing in the context of Project 2050 and other POC led youth groups. It was rough, but it was also an introduction to what I would go on to face if I kept writing the totality of my Blackness. Just the other night, I had a very similar experience when I read a poem about whiteness to a room full of white people and felt the a similar shift in the room as I remember feeling in that classroom.
The fear and realty of having my Blackness consumed then coughed back up and spit out to the side as not an acceptable part of the literary menu for the evening is something I still fear when I step to the stage.
Having so much of my writing since leaving High School and Project 2050 contextualized in academia and by relation, standards of white literary success / greatness and the combination of the onset of a massive extended depression at the start of college essentially stopped me from writing poetry for 2 years. I’ve never felt so distant from myself than I did I those two years, but I never actively thought about how writing poetry could help me get through what I was going through. But my last two years, I wrote through everything I was going through, and even produced a book “Becoming//Black” that was about my struggle with identifying as Black, a story I never thought I would tell. But still, I have not really learned how to take care of my mental health in the process of exploring it through writing, or how to write through my depression in general. To be honest, that’s why this post was a day late. I kept sitting and staring at my screen willing myself to write but knowing my words were not alive, that they were just phantoms, reflections of my dead self esteem, so I would immediately delete it all convinced it wasn’t worthy to be read.
If I’m going to be 100 about my relationship to writing and performing poetry, I would also have to admit that I not sure if I’m meant to be a poet sometimes, that I struggle with low self confidence in my writing because I’ve never studied writing, or don’t know too many authors or know of the latest controversies/going ons in the literary/poetry world. The other day I went to teach a youth workshop in Washington D.C. and had a mini heart attack when the person putting it together emailed me all these forms of poetry they’d been learning because I hadn’t even heard of most of them. In slam, the competition element of spoken word, I struggle too because the random nature of judging makes it easy to blame yourself when you do poorly and luck when you do well. This year I placed 3rd overall at the Individual World Poetry Slam and I still haven’t celebrated my own accomplishment though I posted numerous ones celebrating other peoples’, believing they had rightfully earned theirs.
I’m working to get to a place where I have a more positive relationship to my writing and creative pursuits, but I know I still need time to step into my full self as a person and as a writer and performer. Whenever I find myself putting myself down in my art, I remind myself of the messages people send me, or that person who pulled me off to the side after that one show and showed me their whole heart because I opened up mine on stage. I have to constantly remind myself that my voice has never just been my own and that I never know who I am writing for, even and especially when I think I’m writing for myself. This is why I realize I need to push myself to write those parts of myself that are still in the dark.
My depression is the stubborn gatekeeper for my writing, but its also the only thing that makes me feel better when I’m in the thick of a depressive episode. It’s incredibly frustrating and almost poetic in a way, but I am starting to understand that I am just my greatest unwritten poem and sometimes it’s OK to not have words or the need to describe the imperfections in a masterpiece.
It will be work. Hard work.
But worthy work.
I can’t wait until the day my depression tells me I can’t write and I turn around and be like:
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora