Sonya Renee is an internationally acclaimed Performance Poet, Actress, Educator, and Activist. She has been seen on HBO, CNN, BET, MTV, Oxygen Network; performing on stages from New Zealand to Scotland to New York. Sonya Renee is heralded as a "force of nature on stage" and "humanity in action.” Her work is published in numerous anthologies and has been translated into multiple languages. Her work is transformative, raw, honest and powerful. Her first full length collection of poetry, A Little Truth on Your Shirt, was just released from GirlChild Press.
TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet and educator. TC earned his MFA in Poetry from UA in 2005 and currently teaches Composition at Pima Community College. S/he is the Assistant Director of Casa Libre en la Solana and is a member of Movement Salon, a compositional improvisation group in Tucson. S/he is a collective member of Read Between the Bars, a books-to-prisoners program, and s/he spends his summers leading wilderness trips for Outward Bound. TC’s poems can be found in Volt, The Pinch, Drunken Boat, Shampoo, A Trunk of Delirium, and jubilat. He won the Arizona Statewide Poetry competition in 2010 and his chapbook is forthcoming from Kore Press.
Container Malfunction: Grace
by TC Tolbert
Ever since starting testosterone, back in 2006, it’s been hard for me to cry. If you had tried to convince me that this was a possible side effect before I actually started hormones, I would have thought you were a misogynist. Even now, when I feel tears climbing up some unnamed part of my throat and lodging themselves as pillows behind my eyes, I’m shocked when they can’t quite get through.
I didn’t know this when she walked on stage at Hotel Congress on Saturday, April 3 but Sonya Renee has no respect for side effects. She is not interested in who you thought you were when you walked in the door. She is more interested in the alchemy of collision. The things that happen when she tells you a story. And instead of a story it feels like she’s just handing you a mirror. No big deal. She found it in her purse, thought you would need it – you’ve got that spinach in your teeth. But you can’t decide if the mirror is a paintbrush. Because in this light you think that the mirror might be a gun. But she’s telling you now not to worry, get comfortable. Maybe sleep on it. This could be a thing with which you decorate – no, protect – your terrible ears.
You should not read Sonya Renee’s new book, A Little Truth on Your Shirt, if you don’t like poems that want to fondle you. If you are used to poems that don’t ask you any hard questions, this probably isn’t your kind of scene. If you are looking for a poet who stands at a safe and comfortable distance, don’t bother with the interview below. It’s probably just time to walk away.
Sonya Renee made me cry and I want to thank her for it. But I’m a sicko, I’ve already proven that, I’m a trannyfag. I can tell you that I love her and her work, but that’s beside the point. She doesn’t answer, she just nods when I ask her, “Is there grace enough for a poor wretch like me?”
TC: Maybe the 1st question relates to the title, A Little Truth On Your Shirt, what is the truth that you want to spill?
SR: The place that I write from personally is very much about “what is the relationship between knowing and how does the knowing impact the individual and how does knowing impact other people – your own knowing?” So truth, for me, is the knowing. What things do I know, what things do I know in my body, what things do I know intellectually, what things do I know socially, politically…and how does that get interpreted? And what is the thread that connects my knowing with the rest of the world? We often exist in our own cylinders where our knowing is exclusive to us and our experience we believe to be exclusive to us and I don’t believe that. I believe that our knowing is often many other people’s knowings. We all have fear that it is not – but if we start sharing our knowings with each other, we’ll realize that there is far more that connects us than divides us. It’s cliché but true. And, I’m messy, by nature. I spill shit all the time. You can know what I ate for lunch because it will be on my boobs. There is a way in which my work is that way too. It is a spilling. Sometimes that spill is not a mistake, it is an intentional spill and sometimes it’s just that the container can’t hold it and then sometimes it’s just that I was trying to hold it all and I tripped and it all fell out. But it doesn’t just fall on me. My existence is not isolated in the world and so other people experience that spill as well which is why that truth isn’t just on my shirt it’s on your shirt, too.
TC: I’m interested in the difference between the spill that is a mistake and when it is a container malfunction. In your book (which I love) are there moments when you found, in the writing of the poems, where you thought, “Whoa, I didn’t mean to say that,” or “I had no idea that was in me”? Where you were surprised by what emerged?
SR: Yeah, yeah definitely. Those moments are there, a lot. Which relates to an email question you asked me about my biggest fears in my writing. There are things in this book that were not written with the intention of publishing or with the intention of sharing them with the world. They feel phenomenally vulnerable and frightening and they conflict with the way I present in the world and that is scary for me. I’m thinking of “Penance” about my mother who for years had a crack addiction and she got clean in 2000 and in the last 3 years or so started drinking and is veering into alcoholism. I originally started to write the poem and I couldn’t. It became a blog where I could just say how I angry I was with my mother for returning to addiction and there was just nothing. I didn’t have anything poetic to say about this shit I was just fucking angry. Later on, I went back and added things to it. It started off solely as a space for me to be angry with my mom. So, that was a sort of accidental spill. And the choice to include it in the book was about knowing that that was not some singular, secretive, shameful place for me to exist. There are plenty of other people out there – I find hope in at least believing that.
Which is the difference between the work on the page and the work on the stage; on the stage I get the opportunity, in that moment, to get folks to rally behind the knowing with me and in their own knowing. And in the book, it’s all about the hope that there are other people who can find truth in that truth.
TC: There are so many things there that I’d like to know about. In reading this morning, I was thinking about the trajectory or arc of the book – the organization. I noticed what you are talking about around that poem, “Penance,” – about half way through the book, there is a sort of epicenter of anger. Then the book shifts again and moves into a place of redemption/hope. And I was curious about that, which led me to the email question of how it relates to Sonya Renee the poet, Sonya Renee the performer, and Sonya Renee the person. Which you mentioned a little bit, how those poems seem to conflict a bit with how you present.
SR: This question is an interesting one because it gets posed to me only by those people who know me very intimately and so the fact that you would ask it as a result of reading the book is so scary to me because it means that I’ve let people in intimately. And yes. There is a difference. If you were to read the book backwards, if you were to start with the “Bonus” section and then read to “What a Body Knows,” I think you would have the answer to that question. SR the performer is always self assured. She knows what she knows what she knows and she never questions it. Even if what she knows is vulnerability and fear. She is solid in that. And owns it without question, without wavering. The reason is that I’ve only got that moment on stage engaged with those individuals in front of me to share with those individuals what I’m going to share. And if I question it, in that moment, then they leave questioning it. And they don’t get the opportunity to go back and revisit it because it is gone. So, in that moment as an artist, I have to own that moment. SR the poet on the page doesn’t know in the same way, at all. She is full of questions and very few answers. It’s all about the discovery. On the page it is very much about the process and inviting the reader into that process because as long as that work exists on page I can keep going back to it, I can keep discovering it. I can keep discovering what the nuance is and I can keep having that experience every time I pick it up – and the reader does too. They don’t have to know in that moment b/c it is on that shelf and they can go back and pick it up and say, “oh, I’ve thought about that now, let me go and see what is different about it today.” So, there is a way in which when I am writing that work, I don’t feel like I need to know. I get to not know. And there is safety in that. Until I publish it! It feels safe in the creation. And it feels terrifying in the sharing. And so the choice to share it is one that is against my instinct. SR the person exists in between those two spaces, really. There are moments when I feel assured and completely in my power and strong and there are moments when I am totally in my process and afraid. I am in between those two things.
TC: At what point when you are writing a poem does it become clear that it is for the page or for the stage? Or is it ever that clear?
SR: They are really different spaces. I feel it when I am writing for the stage and mostly that is because the writing is different. The construction happens in a very different way and there is a level of intentionality that I have to have around that to make them translate. One of the constant debates in the slam world is, “Is slam about writing a poem and reading it on stage or is performance poetry something different?” There are lots of different opinions. Personally, I believe that when I am writing for the page, I am always writing with the understanding that the reader has the opportunity to dig endlessly and constantly uncover and excavate. And when I’m writing for the stage I am always certain that the listener only has that moment to get that – so what do I construct to let them get that in that moment. Also, when I write for the page I don’t have an intention. I have an experience, I have a desire to explore language visually. It is often about the word looks and appears and feels in my mouth alone. When I write for the stage, I am generally telling a story. About 90% of the time I am telling a story. And I want people to leave understanding that story. They can make their own inferences about intention or meaning or what they got from that later but I want them to understand the story so they can ask themselves those questions later.
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.
TC: As a woman, as an African American woman, as a woman who writes about sex with men and women, is there ever a moment when you feel a pressure to stand for a community?
SR: There is always that pressure. I identify as queer. That is a new identity for me. One I’ve picked up in the last year and a half. I’ve called myself bisexual for the last 8 years but I am just now learning to exist in the queer community and to consider myself part of the queer community and that is a new space and yes, there is a lot of pressure to belong to a community. Other people want you to belong to their community and, for me, it is about safety. Does the community take as much ownership in me as they want me to take in it? As I get to that space, I get to figure out if that can happen or if it doesn’t feel right.
I tour with a group of women called Salt Lines. We began the tour last year and we are all women who exist in varying degrees on the spectrum of sexuality but I had not, at that point, decided to identify with the queer community. I always felt like an ally but there was something about that term that did not feel like it included me. I felt like some of the LGBTQQA terms included some of those letters just by happenstance. And the discussions that I had been having with lesbians and gay men, I oftentimes just felt like they did not really like bisexuals – like they were annoyed by them, feeling like they were riding the fence. I felt like my identity was not respected in a lot of ways. Coming to feel myself included in the queer community was very much a process. Feeling safe, like there was space for me without being annoyed that I was at the table – or people not believing my experience to be true. And there are lots of communities where I am still figuring out my role or relationship in that. It is a constant re-engaging. I am always investigating that.
I am in the black community by virtue of the fact that when you look at me I am very clearly black. But there are ways in which I have been challenged in that despite the fact that I am very clearly black. There are ways in which I am challenged around feminism. It is a constant dance.
TC: I wonder also about your femme identity – how does being a feminine queer woman impacted your ability to connect with community, if it has at all?
SR: It absolutely has! If you are asking my gender identity, I am a drag queen! That’s my gender identity and there is a way in which that feels very very true for me. As soon as I wrap up the prep for the book, I start on my one woman show which are talks with a biological drag queen. My femme identity is constant. There is a way in which being as femme as I am challenges my relationship with women. And often in communities with butch-femme dichotomies, which is not my orientation, I am attracted to other femmes – which creates its own special dynamic of difficulty to access – because I am so femme it makes it difficult to read me as queer – people make assumptions about my sexuality based on the fact that I have on heels, a dress, and a wig.
Because my femme identity is not subtle, I don’t think a lot of the assumptions about femininity get played out with me. Because my femme is so in your face, I don’t get “oh she must be soft or dainty,” people treat me totally different. I think that is also a relationship between my identity as a black woman, as well. All of these things interact.
Patricia Hill Collins, the feminist sociologist, talks about the “matrix of oppression” where all of these different marginalized identities and their relationship to each other – there are a thousand Venn diagrams and with fifteen million circles in them all and there’s overlap everywhere and ways of being excluded at every corner depending on what other circle you exist in at the time. I feel like I am simply going back and forth within all of that. And there are ways in which my femininity frightens the world sometimes – it scares folks. There is a piece that I wrote in the workshop the other day called “Oh I’m Overdoing It” which is about my lover’s reaction to me meeting her family and how much I am. In one of the quotes in Alice In Wonderland the mad hatter tells Alice she has “lost her muchness.” It’s awesome, I love it. And it’s all about how muchness I have in the world and how many assumptions can exist around that and how much my identity plays a role in me being allowed at the table in a very universal sense. And in a very social and political sense. Being seen, you are already a person whose identity is on the margin. To be seen in a way that allows you to construct the seeing, based on what you know of yourself rather than based on what people want to tag to you, you have to carve that out for yourself. And if you are quiet or subdued or understated it makes it so much easier for people to make you invisible. Or, to make you present but to stick their own labels on you. But, my muchness allows for me to force my way to the table and then to guide the conversation around me that happens there.
TC: That sparks some questions for me about horizontal hostility, where this marginalized group is pitted against another marginalized group. For instance, queers are somehow separated from people of color. I was reading another interview with a writer who is gay, Mexican, and male and he was talking about the queer community’s cold reception to stories by people of color. And I wondered what your experience has been. How have your different communities, which I think there has been an imposed separation on, how have they responded to your work?
SR: It varies. There is definitely a lot of work in both communities that needs to happen to bridge the divide. My professional background, before poetry, I spent a lot of time doing work around HIV/AIDS specifically in the African American community so I constantly was in the battle between homophobia and homophobic ideas and its relationship to the black community and the black community’s health with serious life and death shit around homophobia. You know, we’re the most disproportionately impacted community with HIV/AIDS nationally and then, black people are the most disproportionately impacted group of people around HIV/AIDS in the world. So, how does our unwillingness to deal with homophobia in our community impact community health. So, having those conversations is constantly a challenge. My own dance around my sexual identity and its relationship to my community has been a very tricky and nuanced and difficult one. And a space where I had to deal with my own fear around it. I didn’t come out to my family until last year. I was out in all of my other social circles, my work circles. some of that is my relationship with my family. some of that is not feeling comfortable enough to let them into certain parts of my life. Is it worth the disruption? Is there going to be a disruption? All of the fears that come up around coming out. So that was a dance I had to navigate.
Because I get to exist in this empowered space as a stage artist, I love to use that space to challenge black people around their notions of homophobia. I try to access it from places where I feel like they can get it. How is homophobia personally impacting you? Where is the intersection between homophobia and black people’s existence? which I think doesn’t happen. we don’t create, as our society, a space to recognize another group’s oppression in our own experience. in that reach. and that is exactly how it is supposed to be because if someone always gets to be the bottom rung, then you don’t have to feel like shit about yourself. Right? Because at least you’re not the bottom rung. There are a lot of challenging conversations that I’ve had in the last month around race and the queer community. In the queer community, again, it is an interesting dynamic. Again, doing this tour with Salt Lines with three other queer women, in most of the shows – most of the schools that bring us have queer groups but I’m not in the audience. I’m often THE black person in the audience or one of two or three. Bridging the gap starts in the conversation but the conversation is so challenging without having all of every group’s years of oppression show up to speak first. And all of the defensiveness and hurt and trauma around the issue show up to speak first. So people just pass on having the conversation. I think there is no way to begin to bridge the gap unless we push ourselves to have the conversation - totally uncomfortable and difficult and all of that. It is in the process. My writing about it seems to be in the process phase.
TC: I am so thankful for your work because it does openly raise those questions without saying this is the answer. But you are so vulnerable and you say, these are the questions that we need to be asking.
SR: Because that is what I want. I don’t have any answers but I am so down to have the hard, ugly, difficult conversations. I’ve been having race conversations in the poetry slam community for the last two months. Someone posted a blog that I found really insensitive and culturally elitist and bigoted and I posted a response that kind of created this huge storm of conversation. Lots of stuff came up. And I don’t have any answers.
Particularly around race and sexuality, those are identities that we feel in our bodies first. I feel it cellularly before I am ever able to intellectualize it. Before I am ever able to say “Oh, this clerk is following me around the store b/c I’m a black woman,” my body knows it first. Before I ever can say, “Oh, I’m in danger for holding my girlfriend’s hand in the space,” my body knows it first. So, our bodies show up to the conversation before our minds do. Which makes the conversations really hard to have but I’m willing. I’m willing to work through the process while my mind catches up with my body. And I’m willing to exist in grace and create grace and compassion for other people who are willing to show up for that conversation.
TC: Hmmm. That is so beautiful it kind of catches me off guard. And it makes me think of something Cherrie Moraga said in This Bridge Called My Back. She said, “Sometimes in the face of my own/our own limitations, in the face of such world-wide suffering, I doubt even the significance of books.” But then she goes on to say, “The political writer, then, is the ultimate optimist, believing people are capable of change and using words as one way to try and penetrate the privatism of our lives. A privatism which keeps us back and away from each other, which renders us politically useless.” And it seems like your work uses your personal experience and story to connect to that larger truth, and so it seems like you are, at your core, an optimist. Would you agree with that?
SR: Absolutely, I am at my core an optimist. I absolutely believe in the possibility of human change. For where my mother is at this moment, watching my mother go from horrific crack addiction – selling my Easter dress when I was 10 years old, selling our TV, taking the money my father sent when he was overseas and buying drugs with it when there was just water and baking soda in the refrigerator. And being gone for four days and leaving me home alone. And then seeing who my mother became when she got off drugs. And having my mother restored to me. I can’t help but believe in the possibility of change. I’ve seen it.
I wrote a poem that reminds my father to call me and tell me he loves me unconditionally. I’ve had that conversation with my father for fifteen years and then I write this poem and he remembers to call me. That poem has made people leave my show and call their parents and reconcile the relationship.
Absolutely. I’m totally an optimist. From the top of my head to the painted toenails on my feet. I totally believe in the capacity for humans to change. And we see it all the time. And when we are connected through our stories, the more possible it is to extrapolate it to the larger world. We don’t look for it in our small, microcosms so we can’t see it in our macrocosms. But it exists. But it exists with the correction of those smaller experiences. Each time one person is individually changed, they add to the number of people who create change in the world. So, the more we add to that number and have our own human individual experiences, the more powerful we become to switch that possibility on a world level – on a universal level.