by Jehan Roberson
In part two of her conversation with Jehan Roberson, Nuyorican Poets Café founding poet Lois Elaine Griffith talks about her work as an educator, the Nuyorican as a home for the LGBTQ community, and issues of “ownership” in the arts. You can read the first part of this interview here.
Jehan Roberson: I’m thinking about your work as an educator, and I’m wondering about the impact of the Nuyorican on your work as a teacher, and also the impact of your teaching on your work at the Nuyorican.
Lois Elaine Griffith: A lot. A lot. One thing that teaching does for you—and coming to the Nuyorican so much through poetry, theater, and spoken word—teaching is a kind of theater. I am a teacher. I have a script for the day. I know my intention, like every actor must know. I come before the class. I have intention to give you this, this, and this. How best can I implement that? How can I make it entertaining, even, so that you will grasp it? I took a lot from the café into my teaching and vice versa. Because with teaching, and with acting, too, you have to set aside your insecurities, your self-consciousness. I have found that the more authentic I am with my students, the more success I have had with them. To come into the class and say, “You know, my hair today, I look like the wreck of the Hesperus, I know, but I’m here and this is what we’re going to do.” And take it from there.
And another thing, too, with teaching. You have a lesson and you have an intention. Before anything else, tell them a story about your lesson. So many times, especially in creative writing, I gave them an exercise… Sharon Olds has this poem about bragging. “I am this, I am that.”… And because hip-hop is so much about, “I am the big…” I thought it would relate. And to come up with exaggeration, to understand what exaggeration is. To tell them a story of how I knew about Sharon and the poem, or something from my own personal experience. I’ve never been one to brag, but I can make up images, and I had to have them try to invent a series of braggadocios or hyperbolic images.
I had a class where I taught “Notes of a Native Son,” that essay by James Baldwin. Where you read that closely, it’ll bring you to tears.
LEG: To tell them his relationship with his father, what stands out in my head is an image he describes of working right across the river in New Jersey. I tell them about my own experience, of when my father came to this country and he did such and such. And as soon as you say, “My father,” they’re all, “She’s going to give us some dirt on herself?”. Teach from self. Tell stories about yourself. That’s what I heard at the Nuyorican too. Because your story is important. That’s what I learned from Day 1. I remember the first real poem that I wrote. I was going to see some kind of exhibition at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art], and I was walking from Lexington Avenue across 86th Street, and all of a sudden, I heard my great-grandfather’s voice in my head. And he’s telling me about himself. So I began to write, “When Binah came from Scotland to Barbados, he got he a piece of land right by the sea and Christ Church. Had umpteen children. I don’t know if he had a wife, even. And Poppa was one.” And it just kind of gelled in my head like that, to speak about myself, my family, my experience, and to encourage them to do the same.
JR: And, with what you were saying about the open room, that sort of relationship and space encourages you to stay vulnerable and to stay open, which can be really challenging.
LEG: And scary too! But if the people in the audience are like, “We’re not going to take anything less. Give us your real self.” If that’s the attitude of the audience—“We don’t want to hear no bullshit. Give us the real you.”—then you have to step up.
JR: I’m thinking about my experience as an educator and the moment of vulnerability and trepidation you feel when you’re about to share something about yourself is also a necessary undoing of that hierarchy of student and teacher.
LEG: Exactly. Because they teach me so much. Remember your students are teachers to you.
I had a cousin. His name was Russell. And, back in the day, nobody wanted to say he was gay. He was very effeminate. But nobody would wrap their lips around that word to say that about him. But everybody knew. And Russell had a gift. He could play the piano and, musically, he was so gifted! He was my father’s youngest sister’s son. My Aunt Elsa, her son. Her only child. I used to hear them say, “Well, Russell likes to play with dolls.” Well, time passed, and Russell was older than I. Maybe about five to seven years older than me. I must have been about 11 or 12 years old, Russell was a man by then. Back in the day when, sometimes, gay men would solicit others in the bathroom. He was arrested for soliciting in the Port Authority. He was arrested, and then, the next thing we heard, taken into custody, he was dead. And then, nobody wanted to talk about Russell. It was like he had never lived.
Sometimes when I would go up to see my grandmother and Russell would be there, I was just like, “Oh, wow. Play! Play!” She had a piano. And he could play. And I always felt, even to this day, nobody said anything. No kind of stink. Now we’ve known for years and years the things that have happened to Black people, Black men. And queer Black men behind these police doors. And it was about five or six years ago, when we had a celebration for LGBTQ people at BMCC [Borough of Manhattan Community College]. And I wanted to say something. And I remember I was in my class before and I had put my name down to speak. To tell someone the name of my cousin Russell. I told my class, “You know, today you all should come. Because, whether you believe it or not, you have people in your family, you have people who are close to you who are LGBTQ. Believe it. It’s not something that ‘can’t happen’ or isn’t part of your experience. Because it is.”
JR: We are everywhere.
LEG: We are everywhere. And I include myself in that, too. And I told them the story about my cousin. I told my class. Before we had our lesson. But they were with me! They were with me! We had a good lesson. And after class, some of them came to tell me, pat me on the shoulder, “It’s all right, miss. It’s all right.”
JR: I’m thinking about how queer the Nuyorican has always been as a space.
LEG: And it was never that intention. It just happened to be a place that was forgiving, that was open. It was an open room. Where nobody really judged you.
JR: So was that generative? Or was there a potential silencing around queerness? How was that experience?
LEG: I think, in terms of the Nuyorican, so many people were drawn to it because so many of us were fluid. Not that we ever stood on a platform to say, “Look! This is what I do when I’m not here. Or this is who I’m with.” It was more like, you see me with one person, okay. Then you see me with another person, okay.
JR: Everything is okay.
LEG: Why not? Why shouldn’t I have girlfriends and boyfriends? Why shouldn’t you have girlfriends and boyfriends? So, it was never like, “This is my homosexual experience.” It was never pronounced like that.
JR: And yet so many of the founders are or were queer people of color. And it continues to be that sort of space where it doesn’t feel pronounced. Was that a preferred approach to a stated intent?
LEG: Yes. Because that’s the nature of being human, isn’t it?
JR: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’m thinking about a lot of spaces where I find myself…
LEG: They make an issue of it.
JR: Well, there’s a lot of self-definition in these ways.
JR: I think with queer folks, people of color, there’s always been such a silence around these identities. So I wonder about how to reconcile a sort of hyper-locality with the naming impulse, which is still there too. What do you think about reconciling that?
LEG: Do we have to? Can it just be accepted?
JR: Maybe that’s what it is. That impulse to reconcile these sorts of things is to shy away from the messiness of just living.
LEG: Why not just accept it? That things change and that’s how it is? It took me years to reconcile myself as queer. Maybe other people saw it in me but I didn’t see, or didn’t want to see. Because growing up I can remember my mother telling me, “If you ever decide to take drugs or become a lesbian, I will disown you.” It was something she told me from 7, 8 years old on. I have a memory of being a little girl playing with some other little girls, and I guess I had a crush on this other little girl, and I wanted to touch her. And in my head I knew I better not. All hell will break loose. Not that I could articulate those words, but that I felt it inside myself. Better not go there, better not do that. And to finally admit to myself that there have been women in my life that I have loved, it took me a while.
JR: In thinking about what you said about fluidity, I think about it as a queer approach. I think queerness implies a heightened level of fluidity and about spaces becoming infused with a queer ethos. And being denied or characterized by that openness.
JR: I often hear resistance to an opening of the work in the way that you’re talking about. Because, part of what people are feeling is that the work is necessarily closed to those who are not a part of this group. “It’s not about you; it’s not for you.”
LEG: But how do we talk to people who are different from us if we don’t show them our art? How can we almost seduce them to our aesthetic sensibility if we don’t open it to them? We can’t beat them up, otherwise they’re not going to come and listen.
JR: I think this is part of the conflict with contemporary justice struggles within art movements and art spaces. I find it becomes a back and forth of a “for us by us” ethos, and also the sort of positioning where people say, white people have not created things for us. They certainly haven’t opened things for us, but rather they foreclosed our options in ways that we ended up having to be in contact and in conversation with their cultural production, which was often a theft of our cultural production.’
LEG: Exactly. When they see how exciting our aesthetic is, they want to co-opt it. Which is okay, but this is where the revisionist part comes in. Give credit where credit is due. You didn’t invent this. Where did you learn this? Where did you learn to get on a stage and recite this way? Where did you learn to talk about an open room, which is a nomenclature that we gave our space. It is the open room. And to your point about revisionism and being able to invite people in, you have to have an open room.
JR: How does that work? When you have an open room, the risk can be that everyone doesn’t enter that room on equal footing.
LEG: That’s the risk. That’s the risk. But the alternative is what? To close yourself off? And hunker down? You don’t grow that way either. If I’m just going to write for my own, how am I going to grow? Unless I have other people coming in and saying, “Oh wow!” Or, perhaps, “Let me try this,” and I take from that, too.
JR: But the thing is citation and acknowledgement, which is what you were saying about ancestral acknowledgement. For you, what does that look like when a young artist comes to the stage and is ready to do a piece such as “Ego Trippin’,” and they have some sort of riff on “Ego Trippin’,” but they haven’t actually read Nikki Giovanni. Or rather, they have, but they’re choosing not to acknowledge it. How would that acknowledgement look to you?
LEG: I guess, when they start talking about their work, to make those kinds of references. Because intellectual property—is there such a thing? Does what I create belong to me? Or should I feel that it’s all right for you to just take it and use it and not make any reference at all? There’s a lot of that that happens.
JR: Could there be a third option? Where you’ve created this thing and someone uses it, is in dialogue with it, and they are citing where it comes from.
LEG: Do that! But don’t pretend like you invented it.
JR: So back to your point about ownership—is ownership something we’re seeking as artists in the creation of a piece?
LEG: That’s a good question. If I make pictures, and I just let them go out, then I put my name on them. If you want to use my picture for something, notice that my name is there in the corner. I birthed this image from my psyche and labored to manifest it. Give me that much. I’m not asking you to open your wallet and pour coins on my head, but a kind of respect.
JR: As you said that comment about your name, I was struck by something Saidiya Hartman said [in “Venus in Two Acts”] about two women who were only referenced as two asterisks in the grand ledger of history, as purchases, etc. Your point about naming is something that we have to always think through. My question about ownership was broad, but I think Blackness disrupts a lot of these things. And when we’re thinking about the case of Blackness in a diasporic sense…
LEG: And so many of us don’t know our true names.
JR: Right. We don’t know our true names. Our names have been removed on purpose as a way of erasing us. So when people of color are creating these works…
LEG: Are we doing it again?
LEG: But then again, so often we do what we’re taught. But that’s no excuse.
JR: That’s a lot to think about. Just give me my name.
LEG: I don’t need all the money. But if you’re going to use my pictures, put my name on it. Don’t pretend that you did it, or that it’s done by some anonymous person you don’t know.
JR: What are you working on now?
LEG: Drawings and trying to master the craft of painting.
JR: A final question is about your practice as a visual artist and as a writer/performer. Can you speak to the distinctions, if any, of making a visual piece versus a spoken or written piece?
LEG: I’m beginning to see they have more in common than not. Because you still have to practice. And, in the practice, you’re trying to arrive at that zone. And it’s the same thing with writing. You find the zone. Where time, space just falls away and you’re just kind of there with it. And then, too, I find with writing especially that the more I can visualize in my head the specifics, the clearer it is to the reader. Even if the visualization I make in my head is only about very, very selective things. That choice clarifies it, crystallizes it for the reader.
JR: Are engagements with audiences different?
LEG: I haven’t engaged with an audience in a while to read my stuff. I haven’t. But I still write. I guess maybe I will again. I’m sure I will again at some point. But for right now, it’s the process. And it’s so satisfying, so much learning within the process. I would like to put my pictures together and make a book and have an audience for it. But, it’s the process of doing it.
Read part one of Jehan Roberson’s conversation with Lois Griffith here.
About the Author:
Jehan Roberson is a writer, educator, and artist using text as the basis for her interdisciplinary art practice. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, her work explores text as a site of liberation, place making, and historical intervention for Black peoples in the Americas. Her work has been published in Apogee, MadameNoire, VICE, Public Books, emisférica, and Kalyani Magazine, among others. She is on the editorial board of Teachers & Writers Magazine and is a member of the editorial collective for Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, where she is 2019-2020 co-editor of Ampersand.