Q+A with Aaron Levy Samuels

Aaron Levy SamuelsOn Monday, January 19, the Maltz Museum is honoring the spirit and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a free “Hear Our Voices” community celebration from 11am-5pm. The day begins at 11:30am with a tribute to Civil Rights advocate and longtime Call & Post Associate Publisher and Executive Editor, Connie Harper. It ends with a retrospective Cleveland Blues Society founder and musician Bob Frank. At 1pm, we’re looking forward to an inspiring spoken word performance by Pushcart-nominated poet, TEDx speaker and facilitator of critical identity discussions, Aaron Levy Samuels. I had the opportunity to talk to Aaron in advance of MLK Day.

You tour nationally and I know that you’re in high demand at venues throughout the country, especially on a day like Martin Luther King Jr., Day.  Why did you feel that being at the Maltz Museum was important?
The Maltz Museum’s current special exhibition, State of Deception, is about the ways that propaganda has been used to change people’s perceptions of a racial group. And we have this exhibition in the context of a country that, in the last year−or really, the past hundreds of years−has been experiencing similar types of propaganda used to change people’s perceptions of other racialized groups. And the city of Cleveland has been having many conversations about race-based violence both locally and on a national landscape.

Many of the things that have happened in this country over the past year are central to me, my work and my identity. I’m a Black and Jewish writer.  I write about Blackness; I write about Judaism; I write about intersections among those categories as it pertains to both the historical legacy of being of an oppressed group and to challenging that legacy. I’m also interested in learning what it means to accept identity intersections−recognizing the intersections that we contain as individuals and using those as fuel and fodder for being better allies to other marginalized groups.

This event is very important to me because it touches on all of those things. And I left out the most obvious connection, which is the performance takes place on MLK Day, which has its own historical legacy. So it’s a Black day, a Jewish museum, an exhibition about racialized propaganda, and I have a body of work that addresses, speaks to and aims to understand those contexts better. I feel both a privileged to be part of this event and a responsibility to do it right because this connects very centrally to the exact themes that I discuss and aim to address in my work.

What can we expect from your performance on Monday?
Well . . . it’s going to be great!  [Laughs]  I’m going to do a combination of poems that are memorized. That part is more of a theatrical performance; you can call them monologues or microtheatre. Then I will be reading new work or traditional work from my book. At the end of the performance I will also be doing a Q+A, to talk about the work, the history behind it and its connection to larger themes. Those are the three things that are going to be happening.

So, help me out here . . . how do you describe what it is you do?  Is this slam poetry? Spoken word?  How do we classify this type of performance?
I try to resist drawing wedges between types of poetry. It’s spoken word when I read it out loud. Slam poetry is defined as poetry read at a poetry slam.  You know, all of these things are poems. And it’s also theatre.  And it’s also narrative. And it’s also storytelling.  And it’s also fiction. And it’s also nonfiction. A lot of genres will be present Monday. I try to resist labels, but if you want to use labels, you can use all of those. In addition to contemporary poetic form I’m probably going to read a sonnet or two. I might read a couple ghazals and villanelles as well, which are more classic poetry forms. As for my own work? I came from a spoken word background, which means when I first started poetry, I was reading it out loud, before I started publishing it in journals.  But now I also publish things in journals. And I also write books. So it’s going to have all of those things in the set.

What do you hope people will take away from your poetry and performances?
In most sets, I aim to leave the audience with stories that hopefully help them challenge their own understanding of their identity. By telling my story, or telling stories that I‘ve encountered, I hope to enable people to reflective of their own experience, and then use that self-reflection to be empathic to the experiences of others.

Has there been a renaissance in poetry recently, particularly among young adults?  Is there something about this particular generation that makes them more apt to use poetry to express themselves?
Youth have been writing poems since the beginning of time but in this current generation—the generation that I exist in—there is more infrastructure than ever to support that work and to support the proliferation of that work. Some of it has to do with technology and the internet, and some of it has to do with organizational infrastructure.  There are great nonprofits across the country that have really been building this up, like Young Chicago Authors, Urban Word in New York and Youth Speaks in San Francisco. Organizations like these aim to help bolster the production of youth-centric poetry. I don’t think necessarily that there are more youth now who are interested in writing poems, but rather, these platforms are giving youth more opportunities to share that work, which is really incredible. And I was a recipient of several of those programs, both in Providence and on a national level.

How did you become interested in poetry?
There are a million versions of that narrative. One is that I was writing poetry my whole life. Another is that I was at camp and I met my friend Nate Marshall, who told me I should do it more seriously. Another is that my freshman year poetry teacher in high school told me that my poetry wasn’t good because it broke meter, so I resisted that and wrote a lot more poems that broke meter. But probably the narrative that I tell most is that I was fortunate enough to become a part of the Providence Youth Poetry Slam Team when I was a junior in high school. Obviously at that point I was already interested in poetry, because I tried out for and made the team, but I had no idea to the extent it would become my life. Being part of that team, being exposed to hundreds of high schoolers all over the country who identified as poets and who used poetry as a means to tell their own stories and gain empowerment. It changed my life. It was that moment, when I was 16, that I realized not only was this something that I was doing then, but it had become a part of me that I could never let go.

–Laura Steefel-Moore, Director, Volunteers & Visitor Services