The second of four writers that we will profile in this occasional series, Mahogany is a passionate creative producer with a deep awareness of her place in the world, and was a part of the Poets House Emerging Writers Fellowship program in 2013. As a part of looking at that program, we have been lucky enough to interview four writers from diverse cultural backgrounds to ask their perspectives on the program and its role in supporting their writing.
A decorated slam competitor, MC and host, Mahogany has toured internationally as a poet, has produced five LPs, was the co-producer of NYCs SoundBites Poetry Festival, publishes Penmanship Books (a small press focusing on performance artists) and recently debuted her (second) poetry play Redbone at the Poetic License Festival in New York. Wearing many hats, she maintains a deep energy and resolve towards her writing.
Exposed to classic writers such as Keats, Shakespeare and Frost in high school, Mahogany did not start writing poetry herself until later in life, after seeing a young, black woman at an open mic “saying all these things I know to be true”. She has addressed the dearth of black writers in her early experiences of poetry with writers like James Welden Johnson, Langston Hughes and Alice Walker and her house is now lined with poetry books, where she and her daughter talk about poetry, because “it’s an everyday thing”. In fact, countering the perception that contemporary writers, rappers, hip-hop artists or other spoken word performers are not “real poets” is a passion of hers. When working with young people, she tries to “fight the idea that Sue Haire Hamad is not Keats, that Frank Ocean is not Shakespeare; there are poetic devices and figurative language being utilised [by these writers]”. For Mahogany, it’s important to understand how to analyse and dissect language and poetry, even contemporary language – and she wants to encourage young, potential writers to know that “you get to decide if this is the poetry that you want in your life”.
When asked about the impact of her cultural identity on her work as a writer, she says:
“As a black woman in America, I am always reminded I am a black woman. As a woman in the world, I am always reminded that I am a black woman, that there is a difference between me and a white woman, that I am as invisible as someone’s shadow and my writing informs that anger and that fire in my belly with everything I write. It always comes back to my blackness and my worth and what I feel I deserve and what I feel I am allowed. In that allowance, what I fight for even still, the scraps just aren’t enough”.
As a writer and a performer, she “cannot imagine just writing as an abstract ‘blob’ on the earth”, considerations of femininity, blackness, powerlessness and powerfulness are all elements of her work connected with identity. Having cut her teeth on slam and performance poetry, she has seen times when slam was a microcosm for the world, with writers finding opportunity to express themselves and reclaim space traditionally not afforded to them. While audiences react warmly and energetically to her work, she has found the publishing world somewhat slower to embrace spoken word performers – although this is changing – and writers themselves are taking pride in language that may not be considered “proper” or Standard English. Mahogany feels that she writes with the same tongue irrespective of if she is writing for the stage or for publication; her first loyalty is to the story and then to the audience. She wants to focus on working on the craft of the writing, not changing her tongue or compromising the integrity of her own voice.
Exploring this voice as part of the Poets House program was an enormously positive experience for Mahogany, with excellent mentoring and positive collegial interactions. What the program highlighted though is that publication outside of self-publishing remains a challenging frontier for performance poets. While performing internationally and widely in the United States, she would frequently be asked for “a perfect bound book”. Her awareness of the value of publishing spurred her on to create her own publishing house, which now supports some 12 performance writers including young authors. The focus is on working in partnership with those poets, active “gigging” writers and offering them the kind of opportunities that were not easily available to Mahogany. It is an empowering process for Mahogany, “to stop waiting for publishers to contact you” even if it doesn’t always seem terribly easy. In managing her own small imprint press, Mahogany reminds me again of the power of the book – the legitimising nature of text and print and all the orthodox “validation” it provides, and the delight in overcoming it, both co-opting power and still subverting it.
Recently, Mahogany premiered a new work as a part of the Poetic License Festival in New York, Redbone. The work is described as a biomythography and focuses on the tumultuous relationship between her mother and father, who she once described as “both being survivors of violence”. Using poetry as her investigative lens, she sees the work as “less about who they became, he, the lifetime felon, and she, the crack addict” and more about the time when they were in love and how they created her, “how they fought in themselves when they were not taught to love, and the way that they survived this violent love”. Using live composition, poetry and dance, the work opens a revealing conversation about contemporary black family life and stretches conventional understandings of poetry and poetic form.
If this is writing “emerging”, then we all better step up our game.