This blog post was written by Communications Intern Sara Heegaard about the Persona Poetry Workshops on Saturday, March 7, 2015.
We were thrilled to welcome accomplished poets Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Vanessa Jiminez Gabb as our craft talk authors for our Persona Poetry Workshop on Saturday, March 7, 2015. Under the guidance of both poets, Girls Write Now mentees explored the challenging poetic landscape of persona poems—poems which take on the voices of others. Working with this style of poetry, which by nature requires a deep sense of empathy for others’ stories, mentees pushed themselves to expand their worlds by taking on voices they may not have before. Balancing writerly intuition with sensitivity, experimenting with persona helped mentees not only to embrace new voices, but gave them insight into their own voices, as well.
After the workshop, we got the chance to speak with both Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Vanessa Jimenez Gabb about the voices they gravitate towards in their own reading and writing, the ones they feel most need to be heard, and the power of poetry to help us reach higher and raise consciousness.
What was your favorite poem as a teen, and how do you look back upon it now?
- Rachel Eliza Griffiths: Pablo Neruda, Love Sonnet XVII. I still love this poem very much! I’m astonished, as years accumulate, at the wealth and profound courage—its call to life & love!—this poem offers me. When I was younger I was captivated by the music of the poem when I read it aloud to myself. In its stanza somehow the poet had presented the entire earth for me and me alone, with the understanding that I must love it. I always read the sonnet alone with no one around. Although I was very self-conscious and awkward whenever I read this poem I would hear a strength in my voice. And I knew that every time I read the poem to myself I was that much closer to falling in love with myself the way I felt, in a sense, Neruda perhaps intended. And later, understanding more, the way that this love must be given, shared with oneself and with others.
- Vanessa Jimenez Gabb: I actually, regretfully, didn’t read a whole lot of poetry as a teenager, but I loved novels and certainly saw the poetry in many of them. Love in the Time of Cholera and Their Eyes Were Watching God were everything beautiful to me and still are. I look back at them as lessons in understanding love as not only a personal act but also a political one.
In terms of your own writing, what do you feel are the most important questions you can answer, stories you can tell, or spaces you can explore?
- Rachel Eliza Griffiths: In my work I often answer questions with more questions—frustrating, I know! Where language and art are concerned, I feel as though there is always wider, higher space to push, challenge, and explore. I like to keep the frequencies open and electric. Intimate constellations! The most important questions, for me, will likely take my entire life to comprehend and even then I fear I won’t have ‘figured’ it out. So much of our life is about repetition, recurrence, and echoes. But too, it’s the journey, the stories along the way—mine and the greater world’s—encourage me to keep writing, sharing, and speaking to our experiences as human beings.
- Vanessa Jimenez Gabb: I feel like the biggest responsibility of my writing is to be socially aware and explore issues and events that affect the majority of us, especially those that we aren’t hearing about via mainstream outlets. Of course, I also write to figure out how to better reconcile the person I actually am with the person I want to be.
What types of voices do you hope to see more of in the poetry world? Why do you feel it’s important that they be heard?
- Rachel Eliza Griffiths: I hope to see voices that are highly imaginative, creative, and especially devoted to their development and challenge of craft. When a writer is honest and trusts her own voice because she knows her voice matters in the circle of witnessing, I’ll follow her anywhere. I’d listen to whatever she has to say.
- Vanessa Jimenez Gabb: I’d love to continue to hear working-class voices and voices that are critical of capitalism as an economic system. As the condition of the working-class worsens, the stories of people who have to work to live, who are surviving, who understand the system we live in, to me, are the most powerful.
What unique powers do you feel poetry has as opposed to other forms of writing?
- Rachel Eliza Griffiths: Poetry, for me, is particularly powerful because of its musicality and concentrated meditations across a number of subjects and emotions. There are vast places poetry can’t reach and yet you find it getting into the places where it most needed more often than you expect. I try not to compare poetry to other types of writing because it gets angry and has lovely sharp teeth. Really, poetry often feels like lightning to me. You watch this lightning in the sky or you feel it in your spinal chord and you know that everyone is looking up at it and is connected, spinally, to that the energy of lightning. Between the sky and our bodies poetry can help us translate/transcribe our feelings.
- Vanessa Jimenez Gabb: In many ways, poetry is the least commercialized/commodified form of writing and so a poet has a lot more liberty to keep it real and to really raise levels of consciousness.
If you could give any piece of advice to aspiring young women writers, what would it be?
- Rachel Eliza Griffiths: Expect great joy and likely, great grief. Focus, always, on the work itself. Integrate a creative and spiritual practice that works for You. Remember your community. Fail, forgive, and succeed fearlessly. Give yourself your own vocabulary, your own names, and terms. Look for unicorns. Enjoy and savor who you are at every age, don’t rush your blossoming.
- Vanessa Jimenez Gabb: Remember that reading and writing are forms of activism!
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. She is the recipient of fellowships including the Cave Canem Foundation, Millay Colony, Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her visual and literary work has appeared widely. Griffiths is the creator and director of P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), a video series of contemporary poets featured by the Academy of American Poets. Her third collection of poetry, Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), was selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Currently, Griffiths teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn.
Vanessa Jimenez Gabb is a poet and teacher from Brooklyn, NY. She holds a B.A. in English from Tufts University, an M.A. in English from St. John’s University, and an M.F.A. in Poetry from CUNY Brooklyn College. She is the author of midnightblue (Porkbelly Press, 2015) and Weekend Poems (dancing girl press, 2014). Most recently, her poems have appeared in Word Riot, Everyday Genius, and The Boiler Journal, and she received an Honorable Mention in this year’s Pacifica Literary Review Poetry Contest for her poem, “Summer.” She is a teacher at Newark Academy, where she teaches sophomore and junior English. She is also the co-founder of Five Quarterly, an online literary project.