Be quiet. Then Collaborate.
When poet Glenis Redmond and I sat down for a recorded chat, I had to admit that I'd been interviewing her in some form or fashion since we'd met about six years earlier. I'd seen, read and participated in her work, and now it was time to dig into just how the heck she did it.
Those six years had flown.
I'd been program coordinator for the Upcountry History Museum and invited Glenis and fellow poet Vera Gomez to be featured artists at an annual collaborative event between the museum and the Greenville County Library. I listened, lingered long afterward, marveled at her poetry and presence: Glenis is powerful. Sometime later, she invited me to participate in a Peace Voices workshop and reading at the Peace Center, the performing arts venue where Glenis eventually became poet in residence.
We don't meet up as often as I'd like, and this is because there are always so many insights when we do. On this day, I stopped by her Peace Center office for an official chat, which offices are good for. She'd just returned from Australia where she'd seen a dance adaptation of her poetry performed -- and that adaptation would soon be on the Peace Center stage.
Let’s talk about Australia.
Glenis: I went to Australia last month with my daughter, Celeste, for the Dance and the Child International Conference. This conference is for dance educators who believe that every child should have access to dance, which I didn’t know this existed—I would have been going to this conference. The reason I was invited to go is we’re called the three Harriets. There are two professor friends of mine at University of Delaware. One is Gabrielle Foreman in the literature department, African-American literature. The other is Dr. Lynnette Young Overby in undergraduate research and development, also a choreographer. We’ve been working together for probably the last seven years. How it started—I’ll tell you how it started, and I’ll get back to Adelaide, Australia.
I’m a Kennedy Center teaching artist, and so is Lynnette Overby. We’ve seen each other at retreats every September, but we never really talked. Then they started this thing where each teaching artist would do a little spotlight so we would know what other people did. We’ve heard of each other, but we never got to go to each other’s workshops.
So, I was doing poetry, and then she came up to me and asked if I’d ever read this book Our Nig (1859) by Harriet E. Wilson, the first African-American novelist/memoirist. There’s some controversy about what that title is, but I said, “No,” so she said, “Here it is, read it.”
I took it home when I left DC, read it, and was so inspired by this biracial woman’s life. She was not enslaved. Her mother was white, father was black. She was given to a family when she was around eight or nine and became the servant. This was early or mid-1800s in New Hampshire.
The book is her telling her story. She is a servant; she’s treated really horribly by the mistress of the house. The sons like her. But she gets an education. So, when she grows up and leaves—she was clairvoyant, so she becomes the “Earnest Colored Clairvoyant.” There are ads. And she also produced hair dye. So, actually, she’s an entrepreneur; there are bottles remaining. And then she wrote her life story.
I feel like I’ve heard about this woman. The hair dye sounds familiar.
Glenis: That story was compelling, so right after I read that, I just wrote several poems. Lynnette asked me to send them to here, so I recorded them on GarageBand and emailed them to her. Next thing I know, her students have danced to the poems. I said, “That’s great, that’s wonderful,” and that was just kind of where we left it.
Wait, they’re dancing to the cadence of the poem? Or did they add music to it?
Glenis: They eventually added music to it, but they learned the dance movement to the text. There’s another partner, Dr. Ralph Russell, who composed music for this project, so it was playing in the background. They’re in Delaware, so for their undergraduate final show, they performed this and they sent me the video. It took me about a week, because I was just traveling. It’s about twelve minutes long, called “Sketches.” It’s on YouTube now.
Finally, on one Sunday morning, I sat and watched it. I just started crying, because I thought, “Wow.” You know, to write is a solitary pursuit. It’s me by myself. Or not really about myself: I’m inspired by Harriet E. Wilson. I’m kind of communing with her, trying to talk to her creatively, artistically. And then I send this to Lynnette, and her students do this thing with it, and it was quite astounding. So, that was really the beginning of our relationship.
Then Lynette wanted me to talk to Gabrielle about Harriet E. Wilson, because she’s pretty much an expert. We ended up talking for an hour, and everything she said sparked. I felt I had to go back and write more poems. Lynnette loved the poems, but she felt Harriet’s father should be included. Her father was supposedly, you know, her champion, but the father was dead. So, I wrote this poem, “Dream Speaks My Father’s Words,” and it’s her father talking to her and pushing her through life even though he’s on the other side, and that information really came from Gabrielle.
Oddly enough, when I was in Australia, that’s when I heard that these poems had won an award and were going to be published in the North Carolina Literary Review.
So how did it become three Harriets?
Glenis: I told Lynette I wanted to do three Harriets because there’s Harriet Tubman, who everybody knows. There’s Harriet E. Wilson, who everybody does not know. And then there’s Harriet Jacobs, who lived in Edenton, North Carolina, who escaped her slave owner who was raping her and lived in her mother’s attic for seven years. That story is the autobiography, Incidents of a Slave Girl. I wanted to call it a trifecta: the three Harriets.
So, a couple of years later, Lynnette was like, “So, when are you gonna write those ‘three Harriet’ things? I’m ready to work on those.” Well, I didn’t know it was a “we,” but okay [laughs]. That was good, because she pushed me to write the other voices. So, I wrote “House” for Harriet Jacobs, and I wrote “Every One of My Names” for Harriet Tubman, because she’s called by so many names. All of those are persona poems, where I’m speaking as if I’m the woman. So, Lynnette’s undergraduates learned those pieces as well. I think Harriet Tubman’s fifth- or sixth-generation granddaughter actually danced the Harriet Tubman piece, which was powerful. You could just see how it came together.
I’m curious about when you saw the dance, and how you were saying that yours can be very solitary craft. Is it sometimes lonely?
Glenis: Well, it can be, but I don’t really think of it as lonely, because I’m such an introvert. People don’t really realize that about me, I guess because I’m on a stage a lot and I talk a lot for a living, but I get a lot of my inspiration internally or through literature and going back into the past.
So, it’s solitary, but I don’t really see it as lonely, because I’m really having conversations with people. It’s weird. It’s like a little bit like Harriet E. Wilson, a bit of that psychic… I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. Some people just call it imagination, but I really like conjuring up that person, just like energy or a vibration. Or I ask myself a series of questions, and so I get immersed and obsessed. [While writing Harriet Wilson,] I was living in Charlotte by myself. I can go three days and not talk to anybody—just order food, not shower, just sit on the floor and get a little bit in a trance, sort of. The further I can draw, the stronger the poems are.
When I’m traveling, I can’t really access that stuff. It sometimes happens, like when I wrote all of the David Drake poems while was flying somewhere. It was like a trance kind of state, and other people on the plane thought I was crazy. I don’t like people to see me that way, because it’s just, like, I guess that’s why people think artists are crazy. I mean, it was almost like automatic writing; it just was just pouring out. But I had been reading and poring over his work, researching. And my research is not always academic. I mean, I want to make sure it’s factually correct, but it’s also just “checking in.” So, I’d done that for a couple years and then, finally, I think it was just ready to be born.
It’s not too dissimilar, then, from the way novelists will have their characters and they’re like real people, and that world—that town or that city or whatever—is real.
Or even folks who are living with their characters.
Glenis: Yeah. You do hear a lot of them interviewed and they just say, “Oh, well they’re real. They came to me.” I’ve never written a novel, but I think persona’s the closest I come to that. It’s almost like you take on some part of that person. I don’t really know about how that happens; I can’t explain it. To me, that’s the mystical part of the art form. It’s not the academic, it’s not the craft; it’s the mystical relationship, the inspiration, that kind of cavorting with that world. If I stay quiet enough, I stay alone enough. When I’m sick or when I’m not eating a lot, I can pierce the veils and kind of go into that land pretty easily.
I have a similar thing when I’m fatigued to where like I’m not caring about how my hair probably doesn’t look so great and I’m not eating as much; it’s like you’re in a different place and different things can happen.
Glenis: Yes, exactly, and I learned that before I really was a professional poet. I learned when I was a drug and alcohol abuse counselor for state of South Carolina that when I over-planned group counseling sessions, they were very dry and flat. But if I was sick or just too rushed to get everything together, that’s when magic happens. I kept noticing that if I got out of my own way, magic would happen, but if I controlled it too much, it was like this was the most dry thing. I had to just rely on, in our tradition, what they call “wait on the spirit,” whatever that is. I just have to allow for that not always step in, not always have the answer, be open—
Just let the chemistry of the room—
Glenis: Let the chemistry of the room happen. And that’s where it is with poetry. If I can really sit and be, whatever it is swirls my head and will say, “Okay, you’ve got time for me now.”
So, when you’ve done your work that way, then to see your words danced, where do the new collaborators come in for you? Now it’s a new thing? Or now it’s finished? Or do you see them as part of the creative process?
Glenis: I feel like they’re different. I mean, that my poems were always the poems: I’m a purist; that’s my art form. When I choose to collaborate, it becomes elevated. In a way, it becomes more accessible, because more people are gonna see a dance production than are gonna read this poem in a literary journal. Literary journals are for geeks. It’s writing for your tribe, basically.
It’s so wonderful and amazing to get published, but when it turns into a video that goes on the internet, people can watch it and access it anywhere in the world. That’s kind of cool. Or it’s at a university, and people are studying it. Or maybe it’s in a middle school or high school, and a dance teacher’s looking at it. I think that’s why I love to collaborate, because it has the ability to reach people. It’s visual, it’s auditory. Collaboration is challenging sometimes, but it’s also very good to get out of that place where you’re just by yourself.
Have you seen any difference in the way any one of or all three of the Harriets present when they’re danced, versus when they’re in your head, versus when they’re on the page?
Glenis: I thought the students really did a great job of interpreting the poems, because you have to really do a close read to, you know, figure that out. I think they were very astute in picking up on where I would go. Of course, there could be different interpretations, but I was pleased. After that, it’s a stylistic choice.
All three were powerful in their different ways, and it was just really cool. I saw it twice, in Delaware then Australia. I saw it with my daughter, and my daughters don’t always know what I do. Even though I’m out in the world a lot, I don’t tell them the projects I’m working on, nor could they care less [laughs]. So, it was like, “Oh wow, okay, that’s what you were doing.”
So, it’s even more accessible, even to the people who are closest to you.
Glenis: Yeah. I mean, this is what they’ve known all their life, so it’s like your parents just making noise. Until it benefits them. Like, Celeste is putting on a program at the museum where she used to work and is like, “I know somebody who we can get for free.” [laughs]
I do think they respect what I do, but I think they’re not overly involved in what I do, which is, you know, that’s fair, they’re twenty-eight. I think they can’t not be connected to it, because they are influenced by the work.
So, is there anything in particular that you’re hoping for the Greenville audiences to come away with?
Glenis: I’m excited that this is going to get in front of teachers and students, because I was appalled that I didn’t know who Harriet E. Wilson was, and I was a grown-ass adult. So, my hope is that it’s going to raise awareness. And maybe it’ll plant a seed in somebody who sees it. Who knows?
That’s a big part of why I do these things. You know, I write poems that I did not get to read myself. It brings me more alive, and I’m hoping that it will influence, inspire, and maybe at some point, you know, it could get into the curriculum and textbooks.
That’s my hope, that we could shift the way education is taught. Especially when you think about kids of color. Consider “window text” versus “mirror text.” When I was growing up, I was always looking out on somebody else’s history. I was engaged because I was a geek, but it wasn’t until I started finding characters or authors or parts of history that were direct ties to me and the African-American collective that I was like, “Oh, okay, there is room for us. There’s a space.” So, I think that really influenced me as a poet, and I’m always trying to find those places, shining light.
Unearthing the histories.
Glenis: Yeah. Why are they hidden? This should be 101, and it’s not.
I really would love to start writing children’s books, because I think they’re just an amazing resource as well. That would be one of the things on the horizon for me, because I think the earlier, the better. I actually still read children’s books. I collect them, or people will send them to me.
I’m really into children’s books now that I have a child. If I have to sit here and read this a hundred times, it better be good.
Glenis: A lot of times, when I’m studying someone, I’ll see if somebody’s written a children’s book on them, because it’s really plain and simple just to follow that narrative. When I started writing about Peg Leg Bates, the one-legged tap dancer, it was a children’s book. I would love to start with him as a children’s book. What’s out there is okay, but I would love for a person of color from here to write about him. Selfishly, because he’s a South Carolina son. Same with David Drake.
The Harriets were women of color in the 1800s; that drew me to their work. My daughter said it seemed like I had more of a relationship with Harriet Tubman. Well, the other two were biracial or very close to it, which I understand, but that’s my daughters’ story, not mine. When Harriet Tubman came to talk to me, I feel like as a dark-skinned woman, I just really related to her in a way that just was grounding, and I have more to write about her. The other two women were very powerful when they spoke, too, but it was just a very different incarnation, a very different relationship.
It is what it is, living the life of a dark-skinned woman in America. I mean, that’s why it’s, like, crazy for a Zoe Saldana to play a Nina Simone. Yes, acting is acting. Angela Bassett played Tina Turner. But there’s a whole lot wrong with Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone because of what Nina Simone encountered in her life story was particularly because she was a dark-skinned woman. I just think there are differences.
When I do persona, I’m very respectful of such material—who I’m talking to and what I’m talking about. You know, persona’s tricky, but you do it because you have to. Or, I do it because I have to. If I get called in the middle of the night—which is a lot of times when they knock on the door of inspiration—I have to wake up and write it down. Now, maybe it’s not going to be published, but I’m gonna listen, and I’m gonna write. I have to write.