This is the first half of my interview with the amazing Theresa Davis. She’s a poet and gazillion and one amazing things so I’ll let her share more. Sit back, be entertained, learn, and be inspired by the talented, wise, fun, and also down to earth, Atlanta, GA’s Theresa Davis!
Liza Wolff-Francis: In some of your poems, you use humor to talk about serious subjects. How do you think art, like poetry, can reach people in a way just telling them won’t or can’t?
Theresa Davis: My goal as a poet is to have a universal message, one that everybody can relate to. In my opinion, when you’re doing slam poetry, that’s one of the few ways you can strategize, is that your message can be received in three minutes, and understood and enjoyed. I think people need to laugh at themselves so they feel comfortable with hearing what’s coming next. And I think when you add the element of performance and a good story, it’s more accessible because the humor gives the person permission to actually become a part of the story that you’re telling and to find those parts that relate to them and that they can relate to.
Like in the Belt poem, the anti-sagging poem. The fact that this is something that was brought to me by young people as a way to look cool. I could easily say, no, that’s not cool, but we know that as children, we were the ones that when we were told we couldn’t do something, that’s exactly what we did, so if I take their story and embellish it and then put that twist on it so they actually see where this comes from. I’m not saying you can’t do this, but this is what this looks like when you do this, and if you want to look like that, then fine.
With that poem in particular, with a lot of my poems actually, I see young people scooching back into their pants and tightening their belts. I have folks who see me on the street and they’re sagging their pants and when they see me, they immediately start straightening up. To me, that’s success right there. That’s a successful story that was conveyed. I didn’t tell you couldn’t do it because clearly you can still do it, but I also brought up that point about respect. You know this is not acceptable to me and even though we don’t have a real relationship, we have a relationship in that moment and you remember it. To me that is the beauty of poetry that’s so much better than berating a child for some bad behavior that they’re doing. This is how I see it. This is how you see it. This is how the world sees it. Can we match up some of this?
A well written story, a well performed story, especially in this art form, I think conveys a message so much better than sitting down and debating an issue back and forth, back and forth.
Liza: I want to back up a little bit. Can you say a little bit about yourself, how long you’ve been doing poetry and what you do for a living.
Theresa: I am approaching my 47th birthday, in May (2012). I have been doing poetry since 2006. I’ve been slamming since ’06. I met Karen G doing page poetry after my father passed away. One of the last conversations we had was that I wasn’t living up to my art, I wasn’t owning my voice. I was clinically depressed and I didn’t realize it. I had gained almost 300+ pounds. I was very very content, but not happy and happy to just be in that place and not have anything else happen in my world, but I was very depressed. And my father, that last conversation – after he passed away, a week after that conversation, my mother wanted to do something for him. He was a poet here. She’s a poet here. She’s actually considered the Godmother of spoken word poetry in Atlanta. Her name’s Alice Lovelace. My father, my step-dad, was a poet also and a musician in several bands- so it took me a long time to come to poetry because they were so good at it. I didn’t want to even try to follow in their footsteps and for the first two years performing, I was introduced as Alice Lovelace’s daughter. I didn’t even have my own name. I felt like it was a right of passage or something. So the first time she was introduced as Theresa Davis’ mom, I was like ‘Woo, hoo! I have arrived, I’m my own person now- Hallelujah!’ (Laughing)
It’s been an interesting road for me as far as discovering that I am a poet. I also am an educator. I’ve been teaching in the classroom for twenty-two years plus. I’ve also organized summer programs. I’ve worked for the Alvin Ailey Dance Camp in the summer. I’m a big proponent of youth owning their voices, youth finding ways to express themselves that won’t negatively impact their lives so they can find that artist hidden within them or a way to cope with difficult things. I’ve seen a lot of kids dealing with a lot of adult things they shouldn’t even have to deal with, but they don’t have the words and I feel like when I found my words I was able to free myself from a lot of the pain and things I was holding onto. Two months after my dad died I lost 150 lbs, no diet, no change in anything, it was just stress, I was holding onto a lot of guilt, a lot of negativity that just manifested itself in my body.
I came out. I’m an out woman of color. I came out shortly after I became a poet when I left my ‘wasbeen’ and I filed for divorce and that dragged out forever. I had been very very happy not being in a closet. I think the weight of the closetedness held me back from doing so many things and the minute I let loose those things, through words, I was re-invented. My children were happier. I was happier and things started really going well for me.
Last year, after being a slam poet for many years, I won the Women of the World Poetry Slam, which was very very amazing. It was a very powerful thing in that it taught me some things about myself. I like learning. I’m a forever student, so… Every time I do any of these events, I try to learn something new about myself. Even this year competing at WOW, I learned a lot about myself and about the expectations other people have of you and that even the best of us and the strongest of us can get sucked into that place where we feel we have to live up to someone else’s expectations, but you have to meet your own expectations before you can meet someone else’s, which I kind of lost sight of.
When I won WOW last year, I had this moment when I felt like if I write anything, it better be on point and worthy of being this thing and then I was like, “Wait a minute,” that’s crazypants. I write because I write and everything I write is going to be relevant because it’s coming from myself so it took me a minute to get my head wrapped back around who I was in that moment. Some of the experiences that I’ve had just doing the poetry thing have taught me so much about who I am and how I approach the world and how I respond to the way the world approaches me. It’s been very interesting.
When I won WOW last year, the City of Atlanta gave me a proclamation, so May 22 is Theresa Davis day. What! (laughs)
Liza: That’s awesome!
Theresa: (laughing) I have a lot of fears. I think we all have our fears and I try to face them when they become real clear that I shy away from this or afraid of the rejection. So, this year I applied for the emerging artist grant for the city of Atlanta and I got it.
Theresa: Thank you! I was also approached last year by the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival by a publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press and they only press queer poets and queer writers and I was approached, “I want to publish your book.”
You know when you’re in a moment and you’re doing poetry and you’re having a really good night, and everybody’s loving on you, people will say all kinds of things to you and you go, “oh okay.” And I figure if he calls me back, maybe he’s serious and so for like a month every couple of days on Facebook I’d get a message, “I really want to publish your book,” so I was like Okay, he’s serious.
So I have a book coming out May 20, 2013 and with the artist grant I have to do another book and that book is about teaching and my hopes with that is to have conversations with young people and their caregivers and parents and teachers about how classroom relations can go smoother. Some of the stories I hear from some of these students is really frightening.
Liza: Like between teachers and students?
Theresa: Yes. Like when I worked with the Ailey camp, the kids don’t want to call me teacher, they don’t want to think of me as a teacher because they don’t respect their teachers. So we have a whole conversation about why is it so important to refer to me, they’re like we like you, we want to keep liking you. It’s not even an individual thing, it’s like teacher has become a race.
So, if you’re a teacher… It’s not all teachers, but it’s enough that it’s become a problem. And adults, as educators, I think sometimes we forget, for as smart and irreverent these kids can be, they’re still eleven, they’re still twelve, thirteen. They’re still growing into their identities. You may not be taking them into a locker room and shoving them into a locker and beating the crap out of them, but your words are doing the same thing. I have a new poem called Simon Says and that’s the title poem for this project with the emergent artists grant. That poem basically is about how we shut these kids down. I use a lot of army terms.
I had this moment in my classroom in 2009 when I had this really brilliant kid in my classroom. He was eleven and middle schoolers are very random, they just kind of say whatever pops into their head. Sometimes it’s brilliant and sometimes it’s really scary. In the middle of a test he stood up and slammed his pencil down and said, “You know what Ms. Theresa, if Freddy Mercury were alive today, we would not be at war with Iraq.” I thought okay, Wow. I thought, you know who Freddy Mercury was? I was just amazed on many levels. My rule is don’t talk during my tests so my response should have been to take the test away, but it was so not what I expected that I was just like, “Okay. You might be right. Please finish the test.”
That was a battle I chose not to have. Obviously it was on his heart. He needed to say it in that moment in the way he said it. And then having conversations with some of these other students. I reference this story. There was a girl in one of the other programs that I do who didn’t like science and I asked her, what happened that you don’t like science? She said, I don’t know, but one day I had to go to the bathroom a lot during science class and my teacher told my class that it might be my time of the month. And you don’t know why you don’t like science?
Liza: That’s awful.
Theresa: I think they try to build up the thing like-that didn’t hurt me so I’m going to hurt myself. So I’m not going to participate in the thing I love.
And then having a conversation here at Java Monkey with a parent who was saying her 13 year old boy was suspended because he had an erection in class and then he tried to hide it and his teacher made him stand up. And then he was suspended for it. Now he’s getting in trouble because he won’t talk to her. He won’t participate in class. I’m like, that’s not his fault. And you need to go to the school and get that off his record because that could turn into a bad thing later. That could turn into something else and your child is thirteen.
Liza: And so shaming.
Theresa: He was shamed. The crux of it is: if you keep shaming these kids about these bodies they are trying to own, we ain’t going to win their trust. We’re just going to be untrustworthy. So ofcourse it ends with a Freddy Mercury quote, “Educators quiet your voices sometimes so you can better hear theirs. Do this and I guarantee our young people, they will rock you.” I thought it was clever. Some people get it, some people don’t. I get it and I enjoy it.
So, what else do I do? I am a co-host for Cliterati, which is a female open-mic with Karen G. I’m on the board of Poetry Atlanta, so we do a lot of poetry readings around town. What else do I do? It’s hard when you think about it all. I buy groceries and my children eat them (laughing).
Liza: Well that’s a lot. So, okay, thinking about WOW. Congratulations, by the way on winning. So, it’s a huge competition for women, organized by women and it supports and encourages women’s strengths. What examples do you have of women working together… and also of hosting the open-mic with Karen G and other things you’re doing. Thinking often women and girls are taught to be in competition with other women and girls. What do you think about women working together?
Theresa: I think it is imperative that women learn to work together and a lot of the issues that come up between women and especially when you’re in a competitive vibe, there’s the potential for the competition to go to other places, but it doesn’t at WOW or I’ve never had that experience. I’m sure it’s out there somewhere, but I’ve never experienced it.
At WOW the women are there because they want to be there. They’re focused on why they’re there. They’re very supportive. I go and I cheer for every woman on stage. I want us all to win because we’re all fabulous, but I know that whenever you’re working with art, and working with your personal art for sure, and allowing five random strangers to judge it, hurt feelings come into place and maybe some negative talk about what they think should have done better or not have done better. I’ve heard some conversations, but never gotten really deep.
I think women working together is going to be paramount for real change to happen, especially in the art community- just in the world in general. A lot of issues with women come from the fact that this society believes that we hate each other at some base level and they’re a lot of things out there to help perpetuate that.
And when I work with young people, especially young girls… if you’re a young girl in my classroom, just because society says girls don’t do well in math and science, I’m going to be all in your face about some math and some science. You will know this. I don’t believe in allowing other people to limit you and I preach that constantly in the classroom and any time I’m around young women.
What I’ve learned, I started doing little tours. I want to tour this year. Going to a space where nobody knows you in person, they may have watched a video here or heard about me or whatever, but they don’t know me- and going and doing a show there and then leaving the stage and having a line of young women and they just want to hug you and want to be around your energy- they say, ‘Thank you for letting me know I can have a voice.’ A lot of women think they have to write poems about certain things in order to be accepted and I think because I write on so many topics, that young people see a different kind of poetry from me, so it seems like something they can do so they don’t feel intimidated by it. But my thing is ‘own your stories’ nobody can tell your story better than you can.
I think more of us as women, if we sat and shared our stories, we would realize we come from a lot of the same places and a lot of our issues aren’t really issues with each other, they’re issues with the circumstances of this world and the things that are happening around us.
I think that what WOW does for women and for poetry is something that is so inspiring to me. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it next year, but already in my head I’m trying to figure out, how can I make it that happen? I’m sure by the time we get there I’ll be like, I gotta go. It’s like the patch, I need to go every year at least once because I have to be around that female energy because it’s so uplifting and it gives me hope in a lot of ways about a lot of different issues. Some of the conversations. Rachel McGibbons throws a tea party. It’s gorgeous. I feel like every PSi (Poetry Slam, inc.) event could be run like that.
My mom and I are doing this thing called Café Medusa and we did it years ago. It’s an all woman showcase so we have painters, dancers, bathroom performers, tango dancers in the lobby, women’s art hanging everywhere, a live artist painting while the performances are happening. The first year we did it, we had between 35 and 45 women artists performing simultaneously in any part of this theater and there was a running show on there, there was video, there was everything. She got the grant to do that again so we are going to be doing a Café Medusa in June (2012).
I’m really hoping that when we get this group together that it’s a group that we can maintain and that keeps going so we can do this every year, so maybe we can take it on the road and do Café Medusas, go to other communities, get those women organizers there, put their artists with our artists, and keep pushing.
I do think that women are the power that is on this earth. We’ve got to take it. We’ve got to own it. That’s my goal. I’m taking my part and hopefully bringing some women with me. (laughs)
Liza: Can you speak about how you address issues of inequality based on race and gender in your poetry.
Theresa: I do a lot of different things. As far as gender and gender identity go, I have several poems, … I have one called “Going on a Bender”
(Hey- Click the link to see Theresa do her thing and hear her gender bending poem- SHE ROCKS!).
which basically was born from a conversation on Facebook that got kindof out of control when the J Crew ad with the little boy with pink toenails… Everybody lost their minds, “Oh my God, he’s gay, he’s this…” I’m like really? So fingernail polish now makes you gay. What doesn’t make you gay? By your standards, everybody’s gay.
That whole idea that you can judge people based on what your interpretation of how they view themselves. You can’t judge them on that. In the “Going On a Bender,” have a drag king personae and I perform in drag every once in a while so I have a mustache, goatee. My drag name is Boots Knockin and I’ve done this and had people introduce me and sometimes the makeup’s really really good and people are wondering. But I’m all kinds of things. I may dress up as a boy tomorrow, I may femme out, God I hope not (laughs), another day. Based on what I’m wearing that doesn’t mean you can put me in a box. Only I can put me in a box. We all have similar stories.
The coolest kind of experience I guess for me is, you know: A lot of my poems that deal with queer issues or gender issues, I get some of my best responses from straight people. I believe in my heart that we all have similar stories that we all relate to, so when I have straight people relate to a love story between two girls, then it’s just like… Wow.
I did this poem called “Breathing Lessons” in Boston last year about this first love I had in college. It’s about this woman and this relationship we had and I do the poem and this older white guy chases me down in the theater and he’s like, you’ve got to talk to my wife and I’m like ‘Okay.’ He was like ‘you’ve got to talk to my wife about your poem, so now I’m going through, is she upset, what did I do?
He says, no. She was in a relationship with a woman for years and they just went their own ways and she never had closure and I think she needs closure. I said, “This is your wife?” He says, Yes, but I want her to be happy and she needs to have that closure. If she doesn’t get that closure, I think she’s really cheating herself out of something. I said, “You’re either the most secure man in the world or y’all have a rocking relationship or something. He says, she knows I love her. She knows she’s my heart, but I want her whole heart to be happy.
So, I go out to talk to her and she’s in tears and she’s like, you’re right. Last we left it, she was going to find her and she was going to have her closure. I was like, that is amazing!
Every time I do my art, my hope is to have a conversation with somebody about it or to inspire somebody or to be inspired by somebody’s response. Some reciprocal energy happening there about whatever the topic of the poem is.
Come back for more from Theresa Davis on Thursday. Thanks for reading Matrifocal Point. Welcome to fall!