It's National Poetry Month and Wildling is diving in deep. Poetry is so much more than just pretty words. Poetry is community, poetry is healing, poetry is a revolution. Don't miss this powerful conversation with spoken-word poet GM about how making space for poetry in your writing community creates a safe space for all of us.
Mary-Peyton Crook 00:23
Welcome to How Do I Book? by Wildling Press. We like to chat about book writing, book publishing, book marketing, and of course, the book reading. We're trying to help new and experienced authors develop their craft, widen their perspectives, and learn to get a little wild every once in a while.
Mary-Peyton Crook 00:26
I'm Mary-Peyton, and today I have a very special guest with me! I'm so excited to be joined by GM. GM is a twenty-two-year-old trans non-binary poet and dessert baker based in Richmond, Virginia. Over the past year, they have dedicated themself to introducing the writing community of the city to the experiences of qtpoc individuals. Before debuting as a slam poetry artist, they wrote an anthology of poetry and prose, which they plan to publish--a body of work that removes the burden of gender from its characters. You can find them and more of their work on Instagram @o.k.gm. Welcome, GM, and thank you for being with me today!
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Mary-Peyton Crook 00:45
Of course. So GM, what are your pronouns?
Mary-Peyton Crook 00:54
Okay, perfect. I know we just did an intro about you, but tell us a little bit in your own words about you and your life so far with poetry.
I actually love this question. Because I feel like, in short, I've been writing my whole life. I grew up with readers--me, my mom, and my sister, we used to go to restaurants together, and when we would wait for our food, we'd all pull out our books and we would read.
Mary-Peyton Crook 01:49
Oh, I love that.
Yeah! For most of my life, my sister (she's seven years older than me) . . . we would all kind of pass around our books after we were done with it. And seeing their love for reading made me want to write something that they would be proud of, and that they would enjoy. So I've spent my entire life trying to craft something that would bring my family joy in a way that tethers us.
It's really exciting because even though I've been writing for such a long time, it's been very recently that my family has started to see me actually on stage. I'm a little bit of an introvert and perfectionist, so I try to like . . . once I'm proud of it, that's when I want to share it with them. So it means a lot that they've stepped in on this journey once I feel like I'm in a place where I'm proud of the work that I'm sharing.
Mary-Peyton Crook 02:36
That's awesome. That's got to be a great feeling.
Mary-Peyton Crook 02:39
So for listeners who may be unfamiliar with the poetry that you specifically do, which is performance poetry, spoken word poetry, and specifically slam poetry, give us a little insight into what that is.
So for a really long time, I was mostly a poet on paper and I was going to a lot of slam events, but I never saw myself getting on stage. But I think that I grew such a respect for the vulnerability that people displayed in front of audiences of people that don't know them. And there's something so special about work that is meant to be shared through oration. You can feel the emotion, you can feel like there's a there's a cadence, there's a rhythm. Especially in Richmond, Virginia, there are so many powerful people with powerful stories, and hearing it come from their mouths and seeing the whole room share in this experience and hold the artist on stage . . . I think that's what spoken word is about. I think poetry in and of itself is very important, but I think there's something very niche and specific about sharing the story through oration.
Mary-Peyton Crook 03:43
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of people, when they think of poetry they think of on the page. But poetry started as an oral practice. So, naturally, poetry is about that cadence like you're talking about, that sound. And so hearing it spoken out loud is a completely different experience than reading it on the page. It's an important part of that experience.
Mary-Peyton Crook 04:02
I love that I'm getting to talk to you today just in general, but also because I used to be really into watching and listening and going to spoken word and slam poetry events. I never did it myself. I never got up the courage to do that. But I love listening to it and I used to listen to videos all the time because of that. There's something so soothing--even a really strong, intense poem--something so soothing about hearing another person's voice speaking those words, especially when they've written it beautifully in that cadence, you're right. And hearing, like you said, hearing the audience respond when they hear a really good line is so cool. It gives me goosebumps.
Yes. It's my favorite part to hear. I love being on stage and knowing something resonated with someone because I can I can hear that response.
Mary-Peyton Crook 04:48
It's very like we're experiencing this all together.
Mary-Peyton Crook 04:52
I love that. Yeah, I feel like a lot of parts of the writing community are very formal, you know, on-the-page kind of stuff. And I feel like a lot of people should really check out performance poetry, because it is such a beautiful experience you can't get from just reading on a page.
I think it's very similar to performance art, when people are demonstrating a piece of art and there's like . . . the audience is there to watch them and take what they want from it. I feel very similarly about poetry being on the page versus seeing it in real life.
Mary-Peyton Crook 05:22
And you mentioned being an introvert, which doesn't surprise me--a lot of writers tend to be introverts, you know? But then you do this performance . . . and I've gotten to see a few of your performances through your Instagram account, which are fantastic! Absolutely shook me. They were so good. And so I really was like, "Wow, here's a writer who is not an introvert, because they're out here performing, and performing so confidently and beautifully." How do you do that? What is that like for you?
I think that's an interesting question, and I think that it is slightly tethered with gender in a way. When I get on stage, it feels like I'm performing drag. I am a very characterization of myself, whether it's like the outfit . . . the energy that's coming from me is very not what is offstage. It's a lot of getting myself into this mindset of like, "I'm a performer right now."
Mary-Peyton Crook 06:14
Yeah, and so many of my loved ones perform drag as well, and so there's so much inspiration. . . . I love that art form, and having them support me in that way. My roommate (who I live with, love him to death), he's a drag performer. And so he's a very big part of building me up before I get on stage . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 06:30
. . . as GM versus who I am in real life. Yeah, I think a lot of times, I think that when you get on stage, it does seem like I'm a lot bigger than I actually am. I love crafting a space for myself to be loud, while also having space for myself to be small and alone and enjoy that time with myself.
Mary-Peyton Crook 06:54
Oh, that's awesome. As an introvert myself, that makes sense to me where that would really help, you know? The idea that when you are performing, you can put on this persona, even if it's not like in drag where there's that full costume, right? You're still thinking of yourself as a different person in that moment, so that you have that confidence and that ability to say these things out loud, especially since a lot of your poetry is very personal, that you're able to say these things to the audience and perform it in a more comfortable space for yourself.
I feel like GM is kind of like the shield for the person that I am.
Mary-Peyton Crook 07:29
I know that you have also written poetry for the page. What does your process look like? Do you make an active choice to make something performance versus written? What is that like, that decision when you're writing a poem?
I think that when it comes to performance . . . well, one of my favorite prompts of all time is The Audre Lorde Questionnaire to Oneself. And it's a four question prompt, asks you: What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies that you swallow to make your own? And lastly--and this is in short, but--what is the worst that can happen if you speak this truth?
And I feel like when I really have something that I want to say that I want to share, I feel like those are the things that I bring to the stage especially because, differing from that, one of my favorite messages from Toni Morrison--and I may misquote this, but--she talks about how if there's something that you want to read that has not been written yet, it is up to you to write it.
Mary-Peyton Crook 08:27
That's one of my favorite quotes too!
I spent a really long time in the audience of slams. And though I felt this connection with the poets, I also felt that I wasn't seeing enough queer and trans people of color on stage. And I think that's when I decided that I would like to do that. I would like to create a space for us within this space. And it's been a really beautiful process of when I feel like I have something to say, it gets really scary getting on stage, but for . . . I want to say the last couple of times I've done it, there's always been at least one queer person in the crowd that comes up to me and says, like, "I have never seen someone share our story on stage like that, and I really appreciate that." And I appreciate them! Because I feel seen and I feel held in those moments. And I'm like, "You are here with me, and we are sharing this experience together." So that's definitely what I bring to the stage, what I want to spread awareness [about]. I want to share these stories that I think that we're either not listening to or moving past, if that makes sense.
Mary-Peyton Crook 09:26
Yeah, absolutely. It's very cool that you can see the need that you felt going to those events and seeing that space that's open for trans non-binary people, and deciding that instead of waiting for someone else to make that happen and make that safe space, that you're like, "I can be this person for other people."
Mary-Peyton Crook 09:44
Have you read--not to put you on the spot about what you've read, but--have you read All Boys Aren't Blue?
Uh uh, I should write that down.
Mary-Peyton Crook 09:51
It's a series of personal essays by George M. Johnson, and he's a queer Black man and also a journalist and activist, and (I actually just read this quote earlier this weekend) apparently when he wrote it and he wanted to publish it, he said [something] like, "I don't care if this book is a huge success, or if it's a flop, as long as there's one person out there who sees this, sees themself in it, feels seen, then . . . that's the goal." And that book has become a really huge success and also is banned in a lot of places, unfortunately. But yeah, that just sounded very similar to your experience of wanting to get up there and make that space for someone else too.
Yeah, I think--speaking of things being banned, and like there's a little bit of unsafety of sharing stories--I recently made the Writer's Den poetry slam team, and the nationals competition that we're going to is actually based in Tennessee . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 10:48
. . . which, I don't know if you know what's going on right now, but it's a very daunting feeling going into a space like that and still speaking, because I know, I know that there's going to be someone there that needs to hear it, especially in a place like that.
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:05
That's so scary, though. I am a straight, cisgender white woman--my experience, my fear of getting up on stage is, like, "I'm afraid because I don't want to be embarrassed," you know? And so I don't have that perspective of real fear of something like that, like being in a space that's unsafe to exist in.
But I will say that I think it is like a genuine fear to get on stage regardless. Roscoe Burnems, the poet laureate of Richmond, he always says that the number one fear amongst the populace is public speaking, and that death is number two . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:41
Oh my god.
. . . so, completely . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:44
I believe that.
I one-thousand-percent get it.
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:48
Well, congratulations on making the team! That's so exciting.
Thank you. I'm really excited regardless. I know it's gonna be a fabulous time.
Mary-Peyton Crook 11:56
Good. Why do you think that it's important for a community to have a space for poetry, whether spoken word or on the page? Why do you think that's important for a community? To you, what does poetry do for a community?
I find that poetry spaces are incredibly therapeutic. Especially because therapy in a lot of spaces [is] inaccessible to a lot of people, but the ability to write down and share an experience and be held in those moments is really important. And I think fostering artistry, no matter what age you are, even just for yourself, or for other people, I think that it's incredibly important to have that ability to release in front of people and have people give you that, "Yes, yes, I see you, I hear you, and you are valid for feeling this way. And you're not alone."
Mary-Peyton Crook 12:45
That's cool. So you're based in Richmond, Virginia, which is where I am based as well. Do you feel like Richmond has a decent space for that? Do you think they have that space for poetry?
I think there's definitely a lot of spaces, you just kind of have to look for them. A lot of people reach out to me and they're like, "Ah, you're doing open mics! Where can I go to?" And I have done my digging. So I will send them away. There are so many lovely spaces. I think my favorite space has to be The Verses [aka Tuesday Verses] open mic, happens every Tuesday at Addis Ethiopian downtown. It's the best open mic in Richmond! Maybe I'm a little bit biased, but you have poets that are going there and singers and you have rappers and there's a band in the background, and everybody kind of just enjoys having this experience together. It's always so much fun and I always meet so many different people. It's beautiful, being able to come back and be like, "Oh my gosh, you're here again!"
And then so many of them they also go to these other open mics, like there's Open All That Soul, which I don't remember exactly where it is, but it's on Instagram at @openallthatsoul. The Writer's Den, they have slams every month. I want to say it's every Sunday or every first Sunday. There's so many spaces, you really just have to look for them, because I feel . . . At the Visual Arts Center yesterday there was the Poetry Festival--so much fun, so much fun--but I feel like there are a lot of people in Richmond that are like, "I'll go next year, I'll go next year, I'll go next year." And it's like, "You should come now!"
Mary-Peyton Crook 14:15
I think that's a human thing to always put things off, you know? To be like, "I'm too busy right now. I don't want to go right now. I'll go next time." That's such a human thing to just keep putting things off.
Mary-Peyton Crook 14:25
What would you . . . What advice would you give to someone who is looking to get into either writing poetry or performing poetry?
I would say to write as yourself and not as another person. I think a lot of times, especially when you're in the audience at first, you have this knee-jerk reaction to be like, "I want to write like this person." But truly I think that you should write the best version of yourself. I journal constantly and a lot of my poems actually come from journal entries where I'll take a specific feeling or a specific image and then I will translate that into an artistic piece to share. Definitely writing all the time . . . and again to talk about Toni Morrison, I've watched her documentary multiple times. It's incredible. I want to say it's called The Pieces of Me [correction: The Pieces I Am]. But she talks about how she always writes in the morning because she's more tender, and I think that after you wake up, there's something so soft about yourself. And I always find that that is the best time to write, starting the day that way and starting the day off peacefully, and crafting a good space for yourself to be vulnerable. I think it definitely has to do with writing as much as possible.
Mary-Peyton Crook 15:33
It's the people who actually write every day and get into that practice that really find themselves open to ideas. And so therefore, they end up having more to write about in the future, because they're in that practice.
I think a lot of people will judge themselves before they actually start writing. And the real tea is that you've got to just throw it out there! Like mad-man writing . . . no one can judge you but yourself if you are in your journal. You just write as much as possible and let yourself sound cringy or not good or . . . a line doesn't actually work. You can always go back and change something or alter something or flesh out an idea more.
Mary-Peyton Crook 16:14
Yeah, I love that. I love the idea of having your writing space to be a journal. I feel like people . . . a lot of times writers will separate their kind of journal-writing from their "Okay, now it's time to write something that I want to get published," or "I want to write something more formal to share with other people." And they separate those. And I also hear a lot of writers say, like, "Sometimes it's hard to sit down with my writing [notebook] or at my computer to actually start writing something. It's hard to freewrite." That's a good point that maybe if it's your journal where you do your writing, you can be comfortable with the fact that "No one's gonna read this, I can embarrass myself, I can write something ridiculous, I can write an inner thought that I'm ashamed of." And you never feel like you have to share it with the world. But you can take from that, which is very cool. I like that. That's smart.
I'm also a bit of an eighty-year-old man on the inside, so the computer is very, very daunting. I'm very much so a handwritten person, and then when it comes to a final draft, or when I was writing my manuscript, it was transferred from writing onto the computer. Thankfully I have friends that love me a lot, and so when I get tired, they'll read what I've written to me so I can jot it down.
Mary-Peyton Crook 17:23
Aw that's beautiful! I love that, that's so nice.
It means so much to me, because it's always something that people have heard before, or that I've been talking about a lot. And I think it's also very vulnerable between the both of us, seeing something that I wrote and seeing my handwriting and seeing the smudges on the page, or maybe it was something really sad, so you can see some wet spots. There's a very, I don't know . . . I feel very connected in those moments when people are reading my own work to me.
Mary-Peyton Crook 17:48
I feel like that would be a really strong friendship moment to be able to share that with each other, and also supporting your art, they're supporting your art. They're also there to listen and to read your thoughts. You're open to sharing that with them. That's a beautiful exchange in a relationship.
Mary-Peyton Crook 18:06
How do you then take something that's so personal and try to edit it? Especially something like poetry where poetry can be so freeform, can be so open to however the writer wants to put it together. How do you take it and then sort of edit your own work and get it ready for either page or stage?
I really like to read everything out loud, whether it's meant to be read or meant to be listened to. If I'm not comfortable saying something out loud by myself, then I know that that's probably something that I won't like to share in front of an audience. Or, it's kind of like when you're writing an essay, I feel like teachers are always like, "You should read it out loud, so that you know that it flows really well," almost kind of like a song in a way. And I feel like, especially when it comes to spoken word, a lot of times you have this cap of three minutes, and so you've got to fit "What do I need to say?" versus "What do I want to say?" So once all the necessary information I feel the need to share is in there . . . and also if I finish reading a poem and I'm able to deep sigh, I feel this release and I feel like it's done. I feel "chef's kiss"!
I also love talking to other poets and collaborating with them. One of my favorite poets, she doesn't live in Richmond anymore, but Ayana Florence, she actually just won Women of the World Poetry Slam. She's the number one woman in the world.
What?! Oh my gosh
Yeah! You can find her on YouTube, on Button Poetry's YouTube . . . one of her pieces that she did at WOWPS, which is Women of the World [Poetry Slam], it's called "Boy Calls Me Pretty." It's fantastic. I love sharing my work with other people and having their eyes on it. And seeing, like, "You should say more here. This is where this part can grow. I think you can extend this part. I think this part is unnecessary." I think that once you start sharing with other writers you kind of get a feel of "This is where I can grow." I also feel like when it comes to writing, you grow by other people being able to see your work, whether they're listening to it or seeing it on a page. I feel like that collaborative process, as a community . . . I think you can build yourself individually.
Mary-Peyton Crook 20:22
Yeah, if you want to write and keep it in your bubble that is totally fine. Writing is good for a lot of things. But I agree if you want to grow, then you've got to be allowing others to see your work, give you feedback (even if it's feedback that you don't eventually end up taking, that's fine). But you know, being open to learning from other writers is crucial, for sure.
Mary-Peyton Crook 20:45
So what do you think--this might be a little hard to to answer, but--what do you think is the hardest part about writing poetry, for you?
That's a great question. I want to say, I think it's hard to be honest and vulnerable with another person if you're not honest and vulnerable with yourself. I think once you overcome that hurdle within yourself, it's so much easier to do it with another person.
Mary-Peyton Crook 21:11
Do you feel like you had a time in your life where you finally broke through that? Because I know that you are open and vulnerable with the with the room when you're performing; do you feel like there was a time in your life when you were younger that you finally understood that honesty actually helps in your writing?
So I think there were a lot of things that were happening in childhood that I had a really hard time processing on my own, and so in my poetry, I felt like I was expressing these feelings and I was saying something without saying something. And I still think that that was very powerful, and I look back on these pieces and I . . . I think I started being really honest on stage once I was able to process things in therapy. For instance, one of my favorite pieces that, if I'm able to share, I would love to . . .
Mary-Peyton Crook 21:57
. . . I talk about something that happened [that was] really hard, after I came out to my family. And this is now eight years ago, and I had only shared it for the first time this year. It was in February.
Mary-Peyton Crook 22:12
It was really scary getting on stage with it, because, prior to that, most of my friends had no idea. It's not something that I talk about. But after that, being able to be honest, not only with myself, and relinquishing blame and just saying, "This is what happened and these were my emotions," being held by that audience and being appreciated, even with people that don't have that shared experience, honestly propelled me to get more raw on stage. But it definitely took a really long time processing those feelings on my own.
Mary-Peyton Crook 22:47
That's wonderful. It sounds like being on stage and having that moment and having people react positively and kindly and with gratitude when you're sharing those stories is almost like the opposite of what can be really traumatizing in life, [which] is when you're expressing yourself and what you need and people respond negatively to that. That just is such a beautiful . . . it sounds like it's such a beautiful full-circle moment to come to that and realize that you can help other people through being that honest, even if it's hard to do.
I remember after I performed it for the first time, there was this lady who was kind of in the front row, and after I got off stage, she pulled me and she was like, "Can I give you a hug?" and just embraced me so tightly. And it was someone that I don't know, and someone that does not share that experience. Being validated and [told], "It's okay that this hurt," made it not hurt as much anymore. It was a very healing process. It feels really special to be able to share something that was buried deep for a very long time. And then in conjunction with seeing other queer people in the audience when I share that story . . . I know that they know. I know that they know, and they feel it as well.
Mary-Peyton Crook 24:04
That's so beautiful. I love . . . you know, I think about how much I love writing and reading and books and poetry all the time, and it's for moments like that, that really solidify how magical writing and communicating with each other can be. That's the whole point there.
I would say poetry is for everyone. And above that I think poetry and sharing spoken word is a revolutionary act.
Mary-Peyton Crook 24:35
Especially . . . I'm so excited to go to nationals. It's called the Southern Fried Poetry Festival. I feel like that is such a revolutionary space that all of these people, and above that, queer folk in the South, are coming together to storytell with one another. I think that that is a revolutionary act. I think it's an act of rebellion being able to connect in a community, because I feel there's an emphasis on being an individual and doing things solely by yourself. And I don't think that that is a way to heal. I think that we heal together in a community and lift each other up.
I think that even if you are in the audience, there's just so much love in the room. It's such a healing experience of like, even if you're not getting on stage, feeling fulfilled in the art that you have heard and knowing that you were able to hold someone, whether or not you went up and spoke to them. It's a beautiful thing. I think that poetry saves lives; especially in the spoken word community, a lot of times we're talking about really niche, taboo things, and saying that it is okay to talk about them, and feeling not alone when someone shares it or you share it and someone gives you those good snaps! I feel like it removes you from isolation in a way, being able to share experiences.
Mary-Peyton Crook 25:56
Would you be willing to share with us a piece of your poetry?
I would love to. I'm gonna flip through my little journal really quick.
This poem is titled "Mirror".
When I was a child,
my mother and sister, seven years my senior,
would sit me down on my childhood home’s porch
and beg me to use my angry voice.
to get mad at my tormentors in grade school.
but little did they know,
that the bully who would truly bend me
until my spinal cord folded
had at one point lived in our house.
And that even as a teenager,
I still hadn’t found the angry voice in me to talk back–
to tell that middle aged black boy
that the privilege he chewed up and spit in my face
made his breath smell
like that of a deadbeat uncle
rather than a father of two black women–
one he would disown at 15 for being transexual.
outside of a Starbucks
that I can’t bare to step foot in again,
drinking black coffee that would claw its way up my gullet
every time someone would express care towards me,
and I would feel the decade old caffein high
every time I felt that bittersweet abandonment again.
Ironic to now know,
that I was raised by a raging narcissist,
destined to become his warped reflection,
yet I left home a shattered mirror,
and promised to never harm someone the same way,
whilst piercing the skin of every soul
that attempted to scoop my fragments
into uncalloused palms
and I told each of them
not to look too closely,
as they would only witness the worst of themselves staring back at them.
I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder
in February of 2020,
five years after he promised to pray for me
but I gather that his words weren’t holy enough for God.
Though he cries he is a christian man,
I guess he believes that thou shalt love thy neighbor,
but not thy children
that you should not pass judgment
unless it’s to shove his youngest child into a box
where their pieces would just never fit.
That if he did not like what he saw in the mirror,
he should shove his fist through it.
A few years back,
I had a spiritual awakening
and cried so hard that the breathless silence resonated off the walls of my church,
and felt inside me that my father
would die before I celebrated 20 years.
And the summer before my birthday,
he stumbled into a fire.
Barely survived but now walks around carrying the trauma on his now scorched skin,
and if my life were written by Toni Morrison,
then this would be symbolic.
And the flames that engulfed him,
were actually just my angry voice
and God had heard his hateful prayers and smited him
so that he could no longer avoid the mirror to hide from his sins.
I do not look much like him,
I have my mothers dutch facial features.
Yet I still sometimes contemplate my reflection for hours,
just to see him again.
And I realized that my eyes actually belong to this boy,
And we were witnessing the world through the same brown orbs.
And if I let reality slip through my fingertips
like polluted sand,
I could wave goodbye to his memory at any time.
And only hope he saw me looking back at him,
and his own mirror would begin to crack.
Episode transcribed by Mary-Peyton Crook
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