1) You say on your website that you’re interested in how and when an act of human speech becomes like a poem. Have you discovered any insights into this?
I am an auditory person. When I meet someone, the first thing I notice is the musicality of their voice––how they let the taste of a word linger on their tongue or send sentences flying into the ether. Breath. Intonation. Word choice. Sometimes my favorite thing to do is close my eyes and listen.
In my sophomore year at Harvard, I took a kick-ass course with Prof. Robin Bernstein called “Race, Gender, and Performance.” This course introduced me to the work of Anna Deavere Smith, an actress, playwright, and professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts whose art inspires my own. Back in the 1980s, Deavere Smith began interviewing and recording stories from people across the United States, often around issues surrounding race in America. Then, using the exact wording of the recordings, she translated those interviews into performance pieces. These words come from her TED Talk: “Four American Characters“:
So my grandfather told me when I was a little girl, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” And having grown up in a segregated city, Baltimore, Maryland, I sort of use that idea to go around America with a tape recorder — thank God for technology — to interview people, thinking that if I walked in their words — which is also why I don’t wear shoes when I perform — if I walked in their words, that I could sort of absorb America. I was also inspired by Walt Whitman, who wanted to absorb America and have it absorb him.
Everything I do is word for word off a tape. And I title things because I think people speak in organic poems.
— Anna Deavere Smith (full transcript here)
“If you say a word often enough, it becomes you… people speak in organic poems.” Anna Deavere Smith’s way of reading the human voice has been instrumental in my own thinking about stories. We are, in other words, made of the words we give breath to––the very sentences we speak into existence.
The interplay between language and identity is at the core of the questions I want to ask of poetry. How do poetry and storytelling intersect?
I’m just now beginning to review the 421 stories that I have recorded in the last year of travel in the USA, Fiji, Tuvalu, New Zealand, and Australia. Aside from the obvious rhythm of accents, there’s the beautiful moment that happens when each person’s speech becomes, well, their own.
The words that we choose to use define us. Each and every one of us is the sum of many many stories. Poetry is inseparable from rhythm, and rhythm surrounds every breath.
2) Where you have found the most inspiration in your travels and story-hearing?
New Zealand was a transformational place for me — something about the intersection of artists and environmental activists made me feel almost instantly at home. I’m on my way back to NZ at the end of this month via container ship. While there, I plan to write a book proposal.
3) What will you do with all of these stories?
The plan is to make a map on a website where a visitor can click on a point and listen to a story someone has told me from that place.