Episode 012 Transcript

ALL THIS: Poets Aja Monet & Meghann Plunkett (4/30/18)

PETER MEISTER: Squirrel in winter:/ A crust, at least, with my tea/ And a little nap--

PETER HORN [voiceover]: That's right. It's the Point of Learning Poetry Special. Props to my uncle Peter Meister, whose haiku “Squirrel in winter” first got me wondering about what poems could do. On today's show, two rising stars of poetry:

MEGHANN PLUNKETT [describing Aja Monet]:  She is not afraid to go there, to say the thing, to be direct, whether it's a difficult image that she just really wants to drive home, or if it's something that people just aren't writing about. What she was talking about earlier—she was saying that she is looking for the story that no one is telling, or a story that is in the world, but no one's really paying attention to. I think that that's really self-aware of her to realize that that's what she's so good at. And she's so brave in her work.

AJA MONET: When I met Meghann, I was very much in a binary world. The way I looked at the world was very binary. So, you know, it was right or wrong, God or the devil; it was black or white; it was rich or poor, like the world was just very binary. That was the way that I had learned the world, and it wasn't until I met Meghann that all of that kind of washed away and became like … everything was kind of an inverse of each other and I had to really start to question, wait, What does it mean to be right? What does it mean to be wrong? Is that possible? What does it mean to be this or that? You can't, you can't just be one or the other.

[VO]: Aja Monet is a poet, singer, and performer. At age 19, she was youngest individual to win the legendary Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title. That was 11 years ago, and according to Wikipedia, no other woman has done so since. Her books of poetry include Inner-City Chants & Cyborg Cyphers, The Black Unicorn Sings, and My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, which was nominated for a NAACP Image Award. Monet has performed at the Town Hall Theater, the Apollo Theater, the United Nations, and the NAACP’s Barack Obama inaugural event. I was delighted, but not surprised to look up at the Washington, DC Women’s March in 2017 to see her glorious visage on the jumbotron as she prepared to read, reminding the massive crowds that words have electoral power. Meghann Plunkett is a poet who seems to be winning a prize every other time I check Facebook. Recent triumphs include the Missouri Review and Third Coast Magazine. She has been a finalist for Narrative Magazine's 30 Below Contest as well the North American Review’s Hearst Poetry Prize. Meghann is just about to graduate with her MFA from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where she was awarded the 2016 Academy of American Poets Prize and serves as an assistant editor of the Crab Orchard Review, as well as a poetry reader for Adroit Journal. Her work can also be found in Tinderbox, Pleiades, Washington Square Review, and Luna Luna Magazine, among many others. She is the writer in residence at Omega Institution and the director of The Black Dog Tall Ship Writing Retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

These two phenomenal poets are also close friends. When they were first-year students at Sarah Lawrence College, they admired each other’s work at an open mic during Orientation Week and soon realized that they were both passionate about the right words in the right order.

Aja is currently based in Miami, where she is equally invested in the community as artist and social activist. I caught up with her several weeks ago when she was back in New York City to host the finals for Urban Word NYC, a spoken word collective that played a significant role in her own artistic development when she was a teenager. We talked backstage at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem moments before the event began, so you’ll hear some hustle and bustle in the background on our end. We called Meghann in Illinois, where she had just defended her poetry thesis. They’re both so busy that it wasn’t easy to coordinate schedules, but I really wanted to interview them at the same time, because they have influenced each other’s work for the past dozen years or so, and because it was Meghann who introduced me to Aja through one of Aja’s poems when I invited Meghann in to lead workshops with my students five years ago. Here’s a taste of “What I’ve Learned,” a list poem by Aja Monet well worth hearing and watching on YouTube in its entirety. As Meghann predicted, my students and I kinda went nuts for it.  

[Excerpt from "What I've Learned" by Aja Monet, produced by Cam Be and used with permission.]

MEGHANN: That poem “What I’ve learned.” I love it. I love teaching that poem of Aja’s because it's so beautiful and subtle and so relatable. She talks about knowing how, learning how to glue a dish back together and then she further explains it. “I know how to put things back together,” which is not just about the plate; it's about her life, it's about everything. It's about her emotions. And I think that no one talks about the world better than contemporary poets—our current world. So that's why I like teaching that poem.

[VO]: I like to ask guests about their teachers.

AJA: My teachers have been pivotal to my entire life. I mean, every teacher I've come across has shaped and/or helped me understand what I wanted or what I was aspiring towards, or what I didn't want out of life. In elementary school there was a woman named Haryn Intner—and she reached out to me actually, not too long ago on Facebook—but I was kind of going through a lot of stuff at home. And I actually, I think I like stole some money from a kid in class or did something really stupid, and she took an extra interest in trying to understand why, or what was the issue, versus making me--like I was really embarrassed that I got caught, I felt horrible--but versus making me feel really bad about it, she actually spent more time with me and she took more time to show me attention and care, and she would spend time with me after school. She called my mom and like not to be complaining but to just show how much she cared and she wanted to know what was going on at home. So then she invited me to go with her one day. I guess her and my mom got cool. She started hearing my mom's story, a single mom raising these kids by herself, struggling to do so. And she invited me to go spend the night with her so that she could tutor me because I was really wanting to do more writing and I was not the best essay writer. So she was like helping me revise things at the end of the class. And then I think there was one essay or project and she let me go home with her and then I stood with her and her family, they made me dinner, and she took me around her neighborhood. And then after that I think, you know, we just always, she just always kind of like made me feel like I was important and that, you know, my schooling mattered.

[VO]: As a teacher hearing this in retrospect, I can’t help wondering what might have happened if things had gone the other way—if instead of embracing Aja and trying to figure out why she had made this mistake, the teacher had sent her to the office to be punished. God bless you, Haryn Intner! For more about this kind of approach, reclaiming students as learners, check out Episode 010.

AJA: And then there was a principal, Tanya Kaufman--she was a superintendent for a short time--at PS 183. There's articles about her, and actually what she did at her public school, which was a big deal at the time, and her approach to education, and the way that she was talking about the public school system and all this. And I would say she's someone that stood out in my life. Recently, she passed away, but she's someone that was in my life from the time I was in elementary school to the time I was in college, and consistently would call or just check in on me. Like there was a time I was at Sarah Lawrence and I couldn't even afford to finish some of my credits and randomly she sent the money and told me not to tell my mom, and she was just one of those people that looked out for me.

[VO]: As reported by the non-failing New York Times, Aja’s principal, Tanya Kaufman was the kind of educator who led a school without bells, and would replace the word UNSATISFACTORY on report cards with the description NOT YET—which feels to me like a promise.

AJA: I think what was special about growing up in New York was there was always, maybe it was just my luck or I don't know, but I felt like there was always angels around that were in the public school system, trying to use the school system to, you know, to help change the conditions of young people and like what was possible. So I think most of my educators were really young, they came from liberal schools, they were very fiery, bright-eyed people. They weren't just—I was very fortunate because they weren't just in there for a paycheck, you know. So yeah, Meghann?

MEGHANN: Wow, that was amazing. There's stories that I didn't know. I’m getting stories that I've never heard. I had some great high school teachers. I did a lot of math and science in high school, so it wasn't until I went to Sarah Lawrence that I felt like I really connected with professors that were introducing me to writing as something that was actually possible to do for your life. So I'd say that Jeff, Jeff McDaniel—who was also Aja’s professor, we had that class together—he was one of those teachers that really kind of broke things open for me. And Matthea Harvey also: she was incredibly kind and incredibly insightful, especially during a transition of high school to college. She was really supportive at Sarah Lawrence and that was really helpful to me.

PETER: Aja, you've written that “when a woman writes a poem/ she spends time with the gods/ on your behalf.” I love that. As a teacher, I favored a Emily Dickinson's definition, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s how I feel when I read my favorite poems by Mary Oliver or Robert Hayden, or by you two. What is your favorite description, or working definition, or non-definition of poetry?

AJA: Well, let me first say, I never thought I'd be mentioned the same phrase as Mary Oliver or Robert Hayden, so that's pretty cool. I think, I don’t know, I feel like there's a difference between poetry and a poem. I feel like a poem is more concerned with the writing of a thing. It's a piece of writing that is, you know, very literal but not literal, but it's a piece of writing that is concerned with, you know, poetic techniques and elevating the everyday language we use to create some new meaning of our human experience. So I think that there's a concern with something very specific in what you're creating, that there are metaphor, alliteration, random imagery, that all these things are kind of in that. And then I think poetry can be, it doesn't have to be a written piece of literature; it can be a song, it can be art, it could be, you know, it could be the way somebody cooks, it could be the way somebody gardens. I feel like poetry in and of itself is a little bit more universal, and it's more about a perspective or an approach to life that forces someone to look beyond what is readily visible or available to people. So I don't know, Meghann, I’d be interested in what you define ... You're probably better at communicating this than me!

MEGHANN: No, I think that that's really—I agree with what you just said, and you said it so beautifully. I do think that there is poetry in other things, not just things that happen to be crafted with words. I keep thinking of this Adrienne Rich quote where she says, “When a woman tells the truth, it opens up the possibility of truth around her ”? or let me see if I can look it up. “When a woman tells the truth, she's creating the possibility for more truth around her.” And I think that that to me is what a poem is. When, because of it, because of its existence, more truth circles around it. And I think that that's also the feeling of having your head taken off that Emily Dickinson said in response to a poem because you're opening some small little truths around this concept that you're trying to understand. And I think that that's maybe the difference between a good poem and one that's not really hitting it on the head. You can kind of tell when a poem isn't really telling the truth, or it's talking about a truth that isn't necessarily needed right now—

[VO]: Here's an example of Meghann's truth-telling that is sorely needed right now:

["In Which I Name My Abuser Publicly" by Meghann Plunkett, from Rattle 27 June 2017] 

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MEGHANN: I just taught a creative writing seminar for undergrads last year and I spent most of my time trying to get my students to not be afraid of poetry, and unlearning what they learned in high school. I am a firm believer that poetry is storytelling and it should be accessible; and if it's not accessible, then it's not doing a service to its message and the people that are reading it. So it was interesting to see that that's still happening. I was lucky enough in high school to have a teacher, his name was Ransom Griffin, which is an awesome name! He introduced us to contemporary poetry. I think that that's one of the larger mistakes that maybe teachers of high school students are making: not to introduce them to contemporary poetry—because I think a lot of contemporary poetry is accessible.

PETER: Aja, would you add anything to that?

AJA: Yeah, I think it's a little bit of— What I loved— I took a physics course in high school and before I even took physics I was like, the word— I had already made up in my mind I wasn't going to get it and I had a teacher who ended up teaching me that physics was not just about like learning formulas and like all these talking points and everything, but he was very hands-on and action-oriented and he was really big on getting us to see how things were made and then explaining the physics of them, so taking like a slingshot and then breaking it down and it made—like, his excitement for physics … he was the most charismatic, excited person every time he came into class. I'm sure there were so many days he was tired, but his energy around—and his love for physics is what made me curious, to want to learn what the hell is this thing that he is so enamored with? And even if I didn't get it, I could admire his admiration for his craft and his passion. And so I think 1) We have a lot of people teaching things that don't actually love it. And that's a really big failure of our young people in the education system. I think if someone loves poetry and actually spends time with poetry and is teaching it to young people with that same level of, you know, energy and admiration for it, that's going to translate to kids. So that's one thing that's really important. The other thing goes back to what I was saying about poetic techniques. There are ways that rhythm and alliteration and personification and all these things that seem so huge show up in everyday writing material in the names on corner stores in your community, or you know, the songs that we're all listening to, or the TV shows that we're watching. So there's ways that we can pull pieces out and say, “Look, this is what we're talking about today. We're talking about personification. Let's see how personification shows up in all these different ways.” And then that's going to give somebody the ability to say, “Oh, that's what you mean by personification!”

[VO]: For more ideas about poetry in the classroom, check out Episode 003, my conversation with Paula Roy last summer. 

PETER: I've been fortunate enough to participate in seminars led by each of you, but I was also once in a workshop led by Marie Howe, who talked about what it was like slowly coming to realize that she had something to say, that her take on the world might matter to somebody else. That made an impression on me as a reader of her work, because it's easy to assume that somebody who makes poems like Marie Howe maybe always knew that she should make poems. How did you each come to believe that you could and should write for a larger audience?

MEGHANN: I think I had the desire to write long before I actually felt like I had something of importance to say. And I don't know, I think very similar to Marie—I love Marie Howe—I think that I have a similar mission as Marie. I think largely what she wants to do is tell female stories, and that is a political act in itself. I think that it took me a really long time, and it took me as a person to become a fully confident person that wanted myself to succeed. And then I started realizing, “Oh, the story is that I want to tell, the poetry that I'm making is actually worth something.” And that was, I think, within the last five years that I've finally arrived there and maybe, you know, in the next five years I'll say, “Oh no, now I have arrived.” But I think that the desire to want to do this and my ability, my feeling that I actually have something to say were two separate journeys. There was something about hearing people read poetry. I used to watch the Def Poetry Jams that were on—it was on HBO or something—in high school and I just, my heart exploded every time I heard—

AJA: Remember when we snuck into them? And we went and saw them ourselves?

MEGHANN: Yeah, we did. We got to go backstage, Aja and I, during one of the filmings in New York. But yeah, that was, that desire was totally different from feeling confident. And I think that that really was tied to my self-worth as a person, which makes me think that my poetry and my humanity are really linked.

AJA: Well, for me, I mean it's kind of ironic that we're here at this poetry slam finals for young people from all over the city. And it wasn't until I was in high school, I had done a poem—it was in a talent show. I won the talent show with the poem, and my teachers were all like in tears and they were all just like super ecstatic. And one of my friends was like, “Oh, there's this, these …” I was like, “Wow, this is a thing? I want to find more.” And then this one kid was like, “Oh, there's this organization, you can look them up, and there's more people who are doing poetry like this, young people who are doing this all around the city.” And then I found out, I googled Urban Word NYC, found out that they were doing poetry competitions. I went and did it or “fought.” That was the first time I ever did it. And I was so ecstatic to find a community of young people who cared about words and language and raps and poems and songs and all this. And so I feel like I could, I couldn't avoid—like I didn't want to go just back home. I wanted to just spend like every day after school, I was at Urban Word and I was sitting at Teachers and Writers and I was taking workshops and preparing myself and bettering myself. And so I saw that there a craft and that there was a community and that there were mentors and people who lived and made careers off of poetry. And seeing that was like a whole other thing for me. But I want to say kind of maybe not to push back on Marie Howe, but to give an alternative: I think what's really important is not just having something to say, but also having an ear for what isn't said and to listen for the voices that are not heard and the voices that are not allowed to speak has always been a big part of my journey. Which is like realizing the stories that resonated with me or resonate with people from where I was from. And realizing that those stories weren't heard, weren’t being shared. And if they were, they were skewed, or there was a certain way that they were being shared. So it was important to me that just as much as I spoke, I listened. And I spent a lot of time trying to understand What stories do I want to tell that is different from the stories that everyone else is telling? and How do I get into a place of being as truthful with myself about what's needed in that story to come across in order for other people to be motivated to do the same thing?

PETER: Aja, what do you value most about Meghann’s work?

AJA: Well, I value Meghann as a person, and so I'm invested in what she has to say and what she's working through in her poems beyond just reading them. So there's something else there: I actually love this person. I care about this person, and I've gone through things with this person. I've struggled with this person. I’ve cried with this person, I've laughed with this person. So there's so many layers. There's so much poetry to our friendship. Our friendship is its own poetic tale, you know. Regardless of whether or not it's ever written in words, we have that as a shared story or poem. But I think what I love about Meghann’s mind and just how she talks about poetry, is that she's the first person I met in my life who got as geeked as I did about poems. We would sit—and she and she helped me get even more excited about poems—we would sit in our dorm room and she would just open up a book and we would read poems to each other back and forth, and we'd be like, “Oh my god! Remember ... Let's listen to this line!” And we would just like, ah, fall over ourselves, on lines of poetry. Just like, “What are you guys doing?” We shouda be out drinking or doing something crazy, wild night out on the town. And as kids we were just like in love with poetry to the point that—I think she has also, she, because she grew up, she didn't maybe talk about this, but she, the way she grew up was very different than me, but very similar in some ways. Her dad was a really big figure who wanted her to live–he wanted to be engineer, essentially. [To Meghann] Wasn't that what he wanted? He wanted something like that.

MEGHANN: Something science-based, yeah.

AJA: And so she just had this mind that was so inquisitive, but also very calculated, and math and just all these random facts about life and science and the world and nature. And so she would just bring up, like we were just talking about something and she's like, you know, “It's due to Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, you know.” And I'd be like, “What? Who knows that? Who says that?” And she finds ways to pull these things into her poems. She reminds me of Jeff--and maybe part of it's because we both were in class with Jeff--but in the way that Jeffrey McDaniel is: he turns your mind upside down. He has a way of making you look at the world in the inverse. Just his metaphors and surrealism. It's very surrealist. So there's these ways that something is very, very mundane or whatever. She just kind of flips it upside its head. I'm like, even the goldfish poem [“Human”]: It's like this one thing that you'll see. Someone just looks at goldfish and they never really think about a goldfish’s life, you know, they don't think about what a goldfish feels, or how that's a metaphor for our life or what we feel. So Meghann has a way of really doing that so beautifully and so clearly that it inspires me to think about, well, you know, How much stranger can I perceive the world? You know, how much more science fiction can I be? In a sense, she appeals to that sensibility of me that I really value that because I think the biggest thing I learned was ... When I met Meghann, I was very much in a binary world. The way I looked at the world was very binary. So, you know, it was right or wrong, God or the devil; it was black or white; it was rich or poor, like the world was just very binary. That was the way that I had learned the world and it wasn't until I met Meghann that all of that kind of washed away and became like … everything was kind of an inverse of each other and I had to really start to question, wait, What does it mean to be right? What does it mean to be wrong? Is that possible? What does it mean to be this, or that? You can't just be one or the other. And those are the things that we push each other on, for sure. There's definitely different levels to our friendship. I think her poetry is a reflection of her person and her person is a—it's just a beautiful, beautiful person. She's an incredible person. She's an incredible human being. There’s so much I can say so much about Meghann, and I don't often get to say as much as I would like, but she's an incredible person and I think it shows in her poetry. She's also super dark, which is I thing something I should say. She's incredibly dark, and I am incredibly dark in moments. I think we kind of fulfill each other's like—you know, we've gone through a lot of shit as women and so we have a way of making light of our darkness, in a weird way, if that makes sense.

PETER: It does.

AJA: I love you, Meg.

MEGHANN: I love you too. I'm all teary over here!

[VO]: Toward the end of our conversation, Aja had to excuse herself to prepare to host the spoken word finals, so I had the chance to pose the same question to Meghann about Aja’s work.

MEGHANN: I appreciate that Aja talked about me as a person because I sometimes can't separate her from her poetry, either. I see a lot of herself in her poetry. I remember when we first met and still sometimes—I'm inherently a shy person. I rarely spoke when I was young. I was afraid to speak out. And when I met her and we would go out and, you know, talk to people or hang out with people, I was so afraid of her ability to just say what was on her mind and not agree with someone and state her opinion and argue for what she believed in. That was an entirely new concept to me as a—I think we met when I was 17. And I think that that's one of the reasons why I love her poetry is that she is not afraid to go there, to say the thing, to be direct, whether it's a difficult image that she just really wants to drive home, or if it's something that people just aren't writing about. What she was talking about earlier—she was saying that she is looking for the story that no one is telling, or a story that is in the world, but no one's really paying attention to. I think that that's really self-aware of her to realize that that's what she's so good at. And she's so brave in her work. It's crazy. But also weird and surreal: there's a poem where she's inside the womb and there's, you know, she's like tattooing the womb, her mother's womb with her words. There are moments where there's prophecy and magic in her work, while also being so rooted in reality and so, so gritty. It's this amazing balance of reality and magic, which is I think also something that I really appreciate in her as a person. I think that she's one of the oldest souls that I've ever met, and one of the wisest people that I've ever met, but also has extremely childlike wonder and excitement and energy. It's this strange paradox that she's able to exist in both places.

[VO]: We’ve mentioned that Meghann is a poet who also loves math and science. I was struck that several years ago she began teaching herself how to write code for computer software. 

PETER: I read in your interview with Muzzle magazine that you see a connection between writing poetry and writing code, and that in each domain you are striving for elegance: that's the point. I wanted to ask you to expand on that a little bit because it's hard to resist this question. You are well-versed in, it seems to me, both the oldest and the newest kinds of writing that humans do.

MEGHANN: I like that you're putting it that way. That's interesting. I never thought of that before …  Yes, I was surprised. One of the most exciting things that I learned when I started learning to code was that there wasn't just one way to do it. I thought that I was entering into something that was really similar to mathematics where there's maybe one or two different ways to solve an equation and you know, you either get it right or you get it wrong, and that's not the case. There’s so many different ways to organize something that you're building. There are so many different ways to phrase it. There’s an editing process and it's literally called—the process is to make the code more "elegant." That's a word that is used in our development teams and it really felt very similar to the way in which we write poetry, where every word is so precious and delicate and means so much and has its purpose and is placed there for a reason and carries its own load. And phrases that are intended to take you down one path and then turn you here and direct you in certain ways. It continues to feel very similar to me in that way. On a more macro scale, I think that when you're thinking about how you're organizing something, how you're going to build something in an app, that process is kind of like the pre-writing phase for me, and this may be not only with poetry but with any kind of storytelling where you're trying to organize how? what is the most effective way to tell this story? what genre? where do I start? That also was a similarity that I saw. In general, my desire to learn coding was something that is important. I'm trying to remind myself all the time that I need to always be a student in order to be a poet and in order to be a storyteller. Learning new skills—even if I'm afraid to learn them—is the right thing to do. Always. I think that we have little tiny fears pocketed around things that we don't understand. And that's when you know you have to understand it the same way. If there's something that you don't understand in life, that's the thing that you need to write a poem about.

PETER: Is there a question you would have liked me to ask that I didn't ask? Especially on the subject of learning? I like to think of this as a podcast about what and how and why did we learn …

MEGHANN: I don't know if there's a question in this, but I really do think that unlearning things is just as important. And I've spent a lot of my time in grad school not just unlearning things that have to do with writing, but also just as a person with my habits and my weird little pockets of safety that I find myself huddling onto because of childhood or other things that we learned, the mistakes that we make. I think that that after teaching those students last semester, teaching them creative writing and really realizing that this whole class is just showing them that you can do anything. I tried to never say No to them. I tried to affirm all of their instincts and just get them to write and enjoy the process. And that was the entire— I had an entirely different objective and goal before I met them. And then I realized, “Oh, I just want them to generate something and not hate generating it.”

[VO]: So here we are. The point of learning is sometimes best engaged by unlearning, a perfect turn to go out on. What a joy to be able to talk with these remarkable makers for this month’s poetry special. My great thanks to Meghann Plunkett and Aja Monet for taking the time to talk, to Cam Be, a brilliant director and interdisciplinary artist working at the intersection of independent film, documentary and progressive hip-hop culture, who granted permission to use the clip from “What I’ve Learned”—you do need to watch his film of the poem on YouTube—and to musician Shayfer James, who has collaborated with both these poets, and made available some instrumental tracks from his album Haunted Things especially for this episode. Thanks so much to you for listening, subscribing, rating, reviewing, and spreading the word about this podcast to everyone interested in what and how and why we learn. Back next month with a Mother’s Day special. See you then!


Peter Horn