She’s outspoken. She’s brilliant. She’s fervent. She’s well known in the spoken word industry and will not be out of the spotlight anytime soon. Let me introduce you to this lovely poet: Aziza Barnes.
What inspired your poem Hypnophobia? Why did you write it?
I was reading and watching a lot of Jamaal May’s work that summer, I think it was the summer of ‘12. He has a series of “phobia” centered poems and his work inspired me to write a poem centering on a phobia of my own. I have a genuine fear of the act of falling asleep. Once I’m out, I’m okay, but falling into it puts me in a very shitty place. Not so much now, but a couple years ago, I’d have to distract myself into falling asleep (movies, nightlight, books, texting, mostly movies). The reasoning for this is a few reasons, but I think the main one stemmed from as far back as when I was 9 and this boy in my church (he was 12) died in his sleep from an aneurysm. I also have and continue to have really vivid, terrifying nightmares. And sleep paralysis. If you don’t know what that is, Google it. The shit is horrifying. The whole experience of sleep for me is very complicated.
I wrote “Hypnophobia” in the effort to be honest about this fear, in an effort to be more honest with my work and myself. I also thought it might alleviate the nightmares. I still get those, but I view them differently now; they’re more interesting than fear inducing. Most of the time.
What inspired you to be a poet?
I think what kept me writing and changed it from something I did to be close to and emulate my parents, what made me dedicate my life to the craft of poetry with a consciousness, was a couple of key events. When I was 17, my homegirl had a homegirl who needed poets for a youth poetry slam team. I had no idea what the hell that meant, but I liked poetry and wrote a lot and read a lot and liked to talk a lot. I joined the team and went with them to Brave New Voices. I never heard of that thing before. Sounded like a surreal-poetry-summer-camp-kinda-not-really-tho. I came to learn it was a lot more than that. That was humbling. I met my first poetry mentor and worked with him. His name is Beau Sia. I had never heard of him before that summer, either. After seeing the competition, that there were hundreds of folks my age and younger, who cared so deeply about this one thing; writing and reading and speaking with conviction, I knew I had to step my game up. I knew to call myself a poet, I had to do the work. That the work is usually uncomfortable, requires self-awareness, self-reflection and growth. I moved to New York to go to NYU. That was the second key event. I met even more folk who challenged my ideas about how to be a good human, much less a good poet. To this day, I’m humbled, hungry to learn and constantly trying to engage with and earn the title of “poet.”
What do you find the hardest when writing a new poem?
Condensing my ideas. I often want to write about 9 things in 1 poem. Then I look at my Pages document and go, “oh, yuck.” That’s often a stressful moment.
What was the actual creative process like while writing your book, Me Aunt Jemima and the Nailgun? How long did it take to complete-from the original writing to editing to publishing?
In July 2012, I went back home to Los Angeles and stayed for the month. I kept kicking around an idea I had for a poem, one where me and Aunt Jemima met in a bar and chopped it up. Felt exciting to me and I couldn’t shake it, the image of the two of us drinking whiskey in some tragic looking establishment. I’m always interested in poems that deal with a high level of impossibility, a more surreal world in which I can speak to Aunt Jemima and get schooled on an element of black life in America that maybe hasn’t been articulated in a way I understood prior to researching and writing the poem. I spent about a week researching Aunt Jemima, the company, the character that so many black women had the opportunity to portray in the century and a quarter that the brand has existed, the visual art created by Betye Saar, and Renee Coxx especially, who depict Aunt Jemima as a liberation hero or a hero in desperate need of liberation or a hero finally liberated, depending on how you chose to see the situation. I started collecting ad’s for Aunt Jemima through the decades and put them in a folder, and I’d look through that folder every day. After that, I started drafting the opening poem to the book. I think I spent the longest time doing that, editing the opening poem. The rest of the concept for the book fell into place once that poem got writ.
Most of my work up to that point was dealing with throwing me into situations with my favorite characters in the Black American canon; from Charlie Parker to Nina Simone’s 4 women (I imagine they are real people, because they absolutely are. Safronia is quite real to me, a mirror when there wasn’t one before). A lot of the poems in the book were written prior to my putting them into a collection. It took a month to write the original draft, and then 9 months to get to what became the final draft. The 9 months were full of editing, adding poems, rearranging poems. Publishing it was entirely on the side of the Button Poetry team and it didn’t take very long for the book to print.
What is your next book based on? Do you have an idea of when it’ll be released?
I’m working on a novel and another collection of poems. The novel is more consistently on my mind and I engage with writing it with more intention, so I have a feeling that will be out before the collection of poems. I don’t have a date for the release of either, but they cookin’.
Are there any topics in particular that you would like to write more about?Afrofuturism. Queer Blk Ness. Prince. The reasons Humphery Bogart means so much to me. Prison Industrial Complex in North America. Shea butter. Rituals. The sensation of long distance running. T-Pain & all that comes with him. New Orleans. Los Angeles. My family. Process.
What are your biggest accomplishments regarding spoken word?
Being able to connect and work with the following groups of people:
divine fabrics collective, Poets in Unexpected Places, Kinfolks Quarterly , Button Poetry , Urban Word, Nuyorican Poets Cafe , Louder Arts , Greenlight Bookstore (reading series)
Without spoken word as a foundation, I’d never have met any of these folks or gotten to work with their organizations. I also would not have had an entry point to taking the written word seriously. Then realizing both are necessary, irrevocably linked and part of the same craft/tradition. I guess to that effect, everyone I’ve gotten to meet thru and because of poetry has been something I’m proud of, moved by. The community of folks I am blessed to be part of is incredibly rare. I’m always shocked and moved by the work of my peers/homies/allies/family. That’s a big deal to me, being constantly, tirelessly inspired by folks I surround myself with.
Because of spoken word, I have an entry point to teach poetry to youth. I’ve been blessed enough through the spoken word community to meet folks who do that work, teaching poetry. Something I’m incredibly proud of regarding spoken word would have to be being able to assist the fly and dedicated poet Jon Sands in his workshop at Urban Word. That was a huge deal to me. I got to learn vital ways of giving this thing I really care about back to folks.
What are your involvements in Divine Fabrics Collective, Poets in Unexpected Places, Kinfolks Quarterly, and Button Poetry? And what is the mission of these groups?
I play a variety of roles in each of the groups I stated above. I’m a member (writer, performer, and curator) with divine fabrics collective. I’m a curator with PUP. I’m a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly. I’m an author with Button Poetry, but I work with them in a variety of capacities. In the other groups I’ve named, some of them are just places I’ve read at, reading series, open mics and all that. I feel the need to mention them because they’re beautiful spaces where real good words happen. They got real fly mission statements on their websites, which you should absolutely take a look at.
Who are your favorite poets in general?
There’s much too long a list. Entirely too much good out there. Imma just go with the poets I’m reading currently that I really dig:
Claudia Rankine. Carl Phillips. Douglas Kearney. Dawn Lundy Martin. L. Lamar WilsonHeather Christle.Mendi- Keith Obadike. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Lucille Clifton. Dalton Day.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming artists?
Keep a journal where you write down bits of conversation (ambient, shit you overhear, conversations you have with folks) that sound intriguing to you. Keep another journal where you write down quotes from books you dig the most. Keep another where you write down your dreams and if you don’t dream, where you write something every day. Read everything.
When and where are your upcoming performances?
November 20th- I am reading with my Cave Canem workshop peers at Cave Canem's offices on 20 Jay Street.
December 17th- I am reading with Saeed Jones for Page Meets Stage at the DL Lounge.
Peep my Facebook for more specifics on them joints.