Peauxdunque is one day away from the firstYeah, You Write event, a literary concert and DJ dance party (ya’ heard?) at Tipitina’s on October 13th! Doors open at 7 p.m. and show starts at 7:30. New Orleans poet and Emcee-extraordinaire Nick Fox will be presiding. Tickets are available online and are already starting to go; get yours now! Want to hear more about Yeah, You Write? Listen to this interview of Peauxdunquian Emilie Staat and featured performer Amanda Boyden by WYLD’s Hal Clark.
Our featured performers have been busy in the lead-up to Yeah, You Write, sharing their insights on writing and living in interviews by Peauxdunquians Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Emilie Staat, and Tad Bartlett. Check out the interviews with Mat Johnson, Amanda Boyden, Kelly Harris-DeBerry, Bill Loehfelm, Gian Smith, and Terri Stoor, then get ready for some great, one-of-a-kind wordage and a Peaux-Funquey dance party at Tip’s, tomorrow!
*NOTE: This is a transcription,edited for readability, of a recorded conversation.
A Conversation with Gian Smith
Emilie Staat: What led you to poetry and spoken word in particular, in the first place?
Gian Smith: Well, pre-Katrina, I had visited a couple of open-mics just here and there. I was motivated to actually start doing performance poetry after I saw Nikki Giovanni give a talk at Xavier, I believe in 2004. The way the very petite Nikki Giovanni kinda’ captured a room with a thousand people in it, including me, was very impressive and something that I thought I’d have the skill set for, so I decided then that I would try my hand at performance poetry. I guess it was mostly experimental in the beginning, but then post-Katrina or, during Katrina, I decided in my displacement that I wanted to come back to the city and be part of its culture and be part of the artistic movement that would come out of our regeneration and I figured poetry, spoken word poetry, was the easiest and the quickest way to really make a name for myself. You know us long prose writers, we don’t always have an audience, because people don’t necessarily wanna’ sit and listen for hours; they want to hear something five minutes long, a nice quick dose. So even though I did and still aspire to do things creatively with longer works like novels, screenplays, stuff like that, I knew I had the capabilities to be a good spoken word poet, so I just kinda’ started there.
ES: Tell me more about the Pass It On spoken word open mic.
GS: Right now we host, by we, I mean it’s me and three friends of mine, we host an open mic. One of the guys who I co-emcee with, his name is Alphonse Smith, he aspires to work in the visual field with movies, and one of the guys, my friend Marc [Lundberg], he’s more business administration for us. The other guy who we started the open mic with, his name is Ayo Scott, he’s a local artist, also a visual artist, but more graphic design and paint. He and I conceived of the open mic in 2008, right around this time actually.
ES: So you’ve got music, you’ve got art and then you’ve got spoken word all coming together in this venue?
GS: Right. So the idea was we wanted to do something that appealed to a) a broad range of artists, but b) a broad range of people because, as a poet, as a begrudging poet, I realized that the reason why people want spoken word poetry in these small doses is because it’s not necessarily something that a lot of people can invest themselves into for a long period and in order to make a show that can be accommodating to people’s attention deficient disorder, we chose to include a lot of different genres of art and also elements of our own personalities that we feel will be able to engage people for an hour or two at a time once a week.
ES: It’s on Saturdays, right?
GS: Yeah. And the spirit of the show is that we wanted to include something for the community, something for anyone who’d like to participate. The name of the show, Pass It On, is an anecdote of Ayo Scott’s late father John Scott, who was a world-renowned artist and MacArthur Fellow and it was basically his mantra. He used to tell people “pass it on” whenever they would try to thank him for something he’d done for them, a pay it forward kind of thing, like, “yeah, I acknowledge that I did something that you like, but instead of giving me your thanks, why don’t you put that into the world and do something nice for the next person.” That’s what the spirit of Pass It On is about, it’s about sharing our gifts with the world instead of confining them to our own devices.
ES: So, how did the Treme trailer and your poem “O, Beautiful Storm,” how did that change your career?
GS: Well honestly, I would say the best thing it’s done for it is just to validate what it is I’m doing. Basically, the work hasn’t changed at all. I still write the same amount, I still write the same things, I still do the same things with the community, schools. The only difference is I get paid for it now. I’ve done a lot of work with Tulane University as a result and a lot of it is similar to what I’ve been doing, community stuff. Similar to what we’ve done on our own with our show Pass It On, similar to what I’ve done on my own workshops for a long time, but now there’s a contract that comes with it.
ES: What’s next for you? I saw a couple of your spoken word videos. I thought that was an innovative, interesting idea. But what else are you working on now?
GS: Right now, I’m in preparation for things I hadn’t necessarily anticipated. The Treme opportunity also opened up opportunities in acting. I have acted before, I have a background with it. But I didn’t really think to pursue it just because I didn’t see the opportunity being open as much as being on the other side of the camera, writing, possibly directing, that kind of thing. Now, I’m actually with an agent and I’ll be acting in a play in Fringe Festival, coming up. I also happen to be working on a piece right now for the Peauxdunque Festival, Yeah, You Write. I’m gonna’ be working on an original piece for that.
ES: Oh, an original piece for us?
GS: That’s what I’m doing right now.
ES: That’s really great. So what’s the name of the play you’re going to be in?
GS: It’s called Hip-Hop Is Alive. It’s written by a friend of mine, DaVida Chanel. You know DaVida?
ES: I do know DaVida.
GS: She’s really active in the arts, especially film and production. And so she’s directing this and she wrote it and it’s a play to show how hip-hop is infused in our life and our everyday and it uses popular lyrics from hip-hop to relay her message and to depict real life at the same time. It’s a pretty cool concept. We did the first read of it last night and it was pretty good.
ES: Who is your character in the play?
GS: I play two characters. One of them is a guy who’s basically in a rut, he’s one of these guys who blames his condition on what’s going on around him instead of taking accountability for what he could be doing to improve. He’s at his moment of catharsis with that. The other character I play is a preacher who’s giving this empowering sermon based on the lyrics of Kanye West.
ES: I can’t wait to see you as a preacher.
GS: I know, I know! I think I can do it.
ES: I think you can, too. So, what is the most surprising thing about the writing life?
GS: Honestly, I would say the most surprising this is how fulfilling it is. Before I really invested in it, I had never tackled a big project; like I never wrote a book or I never wrote a cd or a compilation of work. I had never done a major thing and I kinda’ dreaded what it would take to actually complete something, like a novel. What I found in actually doing it, while there are parts that are tedious, the whole time you’re doing it, just weighing it against other types of work, you get a lot of art in the process. I didn’t really anticipate how much it would mean to me to finish long projects or to be able to say, “I’m a writer” and actually have something to back that up, to validate me.
ES: What’s been the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
GS: See, I don’t know. All of the best tools for my writing have come from my dad and they definitely didn’t come in the form of advice. My dad is a professor at Tulane and so when he talks, it’s not in “come here and listen to what I have to say” terms. It’s “you need to be listening to me and I’m demanding your attention right now.” Any time that I was identifying too much with the character that I’m playing where I’d get in a rut or start feeling overwhelmed by a project or whatever, just basically, you have two choices: you can either do it or don’t do it. But if you don’t do it, don’t whine about it not getting done. If you have a project and you wanna’ see it come to fruition, then do the work. Period.
A year ago, the Peauxdunquians had a vision, a collective vision of a city with vast cultural resources — artists and musicians and writers and chefs, all striving for funky and ultimate soulful expression, celebrated not just by their peers but by ecstatic audiences, too. And then we realized that vision was the place where we live, right here in New Orleans. We flock to restaurants to share the creations of our artistic chefs; we jam our clubs to listen to bands who play our music. And now it’s time to step it up for another group of our artists, the nationally acclaimed writers of our city and our region.
New Orleans and the South have always been a city and a region of incredible writers. They can be as much our rock stars as our musicians are, and now they are coming together in one of our grand temples: Tipitina’s uptown, the altar of ‘Fess himself, will be hosting the first Yeah, You Write event, on October 13, 2011, from 7:00 until the celebration ends. Six great writers, emcee’d by local poet Nick Fox, and followed by the dance visions of D.J. Sep. All for only a $5 cover.
Come hear Mat Johnson (author of “Pym,” winner of the Dos Passos Prize for Literature), Kelly Harris-DeBerry (local poet and literary activist, and founder of the Literary Lab), Amanda Boyden (author most recently of “Babylon Rolling”), Bill Loehfelm (past Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award winner, author most recently of “The Devil She Knows”), Gian Smith (spoken word artist, author of “O Beautiful Storm,” featured in Treme Season 2 trailer), and Terri Stoor (PWA member and winner of the 2011 William Faulkner-William Wisdom short story competition). These are the words of our time, our city, our region, and our Peauxdunque.