Summers are usually a time for a break from the fast pace of work. Families go on vacation, children are off from school and staff members get to take their well-earned vacations. But not everyone uses the summer months to take their foot off the pedal.
This summer, rising senior Kassidi Jones, poet and activist, attended the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The Callaloo Workshop offers sessions in poetry and fiction writing to new and emerging writers from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean.
Kassidi also spent time this summer conducting research for her senior honors thesis in English on poetry written by Black women during Reconstruction, reading books and articles and visiting archives to try to uncover the names of the women who were publishing poetry from 1866 to 1877.
This year, she plans to finish writing 2 books: a children's book, which is part of a larger series, and a manuscript of poems. She is also scheduled to graduate this May, so it is safe to say she has her hands full.
What is the Callaloo workshop?
It’s a 2-week long program for poets, non-fiction and fiction writers to work with seasoned professionals. They train you on technique and edit your work. I was in the poetry section. There were two workshop leaders for poetry: Vievee Francis and Greg Pardlow. They really dug into our work for those two weeks.
Calloloo is a journal that publishes a variety of works. It started as a journal just for southern writers but then was expanded to include the African Diaspora, and then they added the workshop. In any case, I knew of the journal first and then saw that they had the workshop, so I applied.
What got you interested in poetry?
I started writing poems in second grade because I forgot a Mother’s Day gift, so I wrote my mom a poem instead and she really liked it. I’ve continued to write ever since I learned the power of words, but I didn’t start performing until college, when I joined the Excelano Project, which is Penn’s spoken word poetry group. I’ve been with Excelano since freshmen year and I’m the president now.
What made you want to transition from writing to performing?
I wanted to perform earlier than I did, but I was really insecure about sharing my work, and also in high school, I didn’t have anyone to write with so everything I wrote just stayed with me. But in college when I learned about Excelano, there were people to edit my poems and help make me a better poet, which made me more confident in my poetry and then I was ready to share.
Do current events affect your poetry?
They definitely do. I don’t really write to cope with things, but I write to figure out how I’m feeling about certain situations, so it’s more about diagnosis. And I know everyone in Excelano, we were all really affected by the election. Everyone reacted in a different way, but everyone had a strong reaction. So, our fall show last year organically turned into a response to the way the world is. I’m pretty sure (this is turning into an Excelano interview, but I love it so much!) we all write because we know we have a gift with words, and so we can articulate things other people may be experiencing but aren’t sure how to express to others, so we try to call everyone into the space when we write and we write for everyone.
Are there certain poets or writers that influence your poetry?
Well, my favorite poet is Audre Lorde, who helps me get more personal in poems. One issue that I have is writing about big current events. I feel distant from it. I distance myself from the poem, so I don’t feel so vulnerable when I’m talking about big things everyone can relate to. It’s safer. But with poets like Audre Lorde, there is no distance. It’s more vulnerable and is also what the Callaloo workshop is teaching me to do.
Dr. Beavers (Herman Beavers, Professor of English and Africana Studies) has influenced my writing because my first official poetry workshop was Dr. Beavers’ class, and also because I enjoy reading his stuff. And a lot of spoken word artists like Cortney Lamar Charleston (C’12 W’12) and Joshua Bennett (C’10), who both went to Penn. And they were also in Excelano. So, yes, big ups to them.
What do you plan on doing with your poetry in the future, after you leave Penn?
I definitely want to be a published poet soon. I’ve had several manuscripts for a while now, but it feels like the kind of writer that I am is changing a lot, especially after the Callaloo workshop, so I’ve had to restart a few times. I am starting a new manuscript now. I need to get published in some journals first, but I’d like to build my body of work before I start sending poems out and yes, I’m trying to get milk and honey famous.
What was your favorite part of the Callaloo workshop?
The best part of the Callaloo workshop was bonding with my cohort. The poets in my group were not only extraordinary writers, but also extraordinary people. Their care for my craft and for my well-being really carried me through. We're still friends now. We edit each other's work, but we also just check in with each other, laugh with each other. It's really sweet.
When you write, do you have a specific goal for different pieces, or is there one broad goal?
Right now, my goal is to be as honest with myself as I can, so I’m not really thinking about anybody else. My poems used to be for everyone, but right now I’m really trying to be open, vulnerable, figure things out that are happening internally. That’s the goal. Be as personal as possible. Leave it all on the page.
How has being at Penn helped your poetry and, more specifically, how has majoring in Africana Studies helped?
Penn gave me the Excelano project, so that’s the biggest thing. That was the greatest gift because those people are like a family to me. But Africana Studies, first, has given me space to write. And material. When I took Dr. Sanders Johnson’s (Grace L. Sanders Johnson, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies) class, AFRC 387, Topics in Africana Studies, I was learning themes and materials and people and histories that I never encountered before and that inspired a lot of writing. And the Center for Africana Studies provided travel funding for me to attend the Callaloo workshop. Africana Studies has always been supportive about the things I do, but I really appreciate the support I get as a writer. Penn is really pretty pre-professional and I don’t always feel as though people who want to explore humanities, especially people who want to be writers, especially creative writers, have the most support, but Africana definitely gave me all the support that I needed. The guidance I’ve gotten from Dr. Beavers as a poet, specifically, has been so helpful.
How would you explain poetry to the unitiated? What poems would you suggest they read?
Sometimes poetry is inaccessible, which is why the shorter, more pithy poetry like Nayyirah Waheed, Warsan Shire and Rupi Kaur, try to explain universal feelings in a way that a wider audience can digest. There are poems for everybody. Spoken word is also more accessible than page poetry sometimes, so if you go on YouTube and watch Button Poetry or watch the Brave New Voices videos that just came out, those poems are usually more direct, and it’s easier to figure out what emotion is in the poem when you’re watching someone perform it.
Kassidi is a senior, double majoring in English and Africana Studies. Check out her website here.
Check out more from the Excelano Project here.
Callaloo, the premier literary and cultural journal of the African Diaspora, was founded by current editor Charles H. Rowell in 1976 at Southern University. The Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop was founded in 1997.