Talking with Daemond Arrindell about poetry, performance, and writing in a community

Our August Poet in Residence, Daemond Arrindell, is having a fantastic year. He co-authored the world premiere of a theatrical adaptation of T. Geronimo Johnson’s novel Welcome to Braggsville at Book-It Repertory Theatre earlier this year to universal acclaim. And he was recently announced as the curator of the 2018 Jack Straw Writers program, which means he’ll select and guide a class of Seattle writers through the process of learning how to perform their writing more effectively. If you’d like to see Arrindell read, he’ll be performing at Sandbox Radio on August 28th, Poetry Bridge in West Seattle next month. This interview has been lightly edited.

First, I wanted to ask you about Your work adapting Welcome to Braggsville for Book-It Theatre. Is the theater something that you've always been interested in?

No. I kind of fell into the world of theater through Freehold. Freehold Theatre reached out to me over ten years ago because of my work in facilitating writing workshops. They have a program called The Engaged Theater Project and it's about bringing theater to culturally underserved populations. There are several different residencies that take place — one at the women's prison down in Purdy and another at the men's prison in Monroe.

The idea is Robin Lynn Smith, who's one of the founders of Freehold, was looking to host workshops at the women's prison to get the women writing about different ideas. She asked me if I could put something together. I put something together. She really liked it. Next thing I know, she has invited me to join the faculty of Freehold, teaching spoken word.

That's how I got into the theater world — by happenstance and by coincidence. And the overlap between spoken word and theater is strong writing, and bringing the craft of writing into life through the art of performance. Most spoken word pieces are essentially monologues — just storytelling in a different format.

Ten-plus years of essentially working in theater but not exactly being a theater artist has opened a lot of doors for me and brought me in touch with a lot of people who recognize that crafting performances in spoken word is very similar to the same skills and tactics used in the realm of theater.

Josh Aaseng, literary manager at Book-It, reached out to me in the spring of 2016, asking me if I would be interested in working with him on the adaptation of Welcome to Braggsville for a couple reasons — one, because of the work that I do in race and equity; and two, because I have experience in the theater and also experience with editing and poetry.

So, within the men's prison I work with a group of guys for a couple months in helping them to write all kinds of styles of poetry and performance. And then I take all of their writing and cut and paste it into one performance that is somewhat theater and somewhat poetry — not exactly either one, but a melding of the two.

That idea of working with writing that is already in existence and cutting and pasting it into something else that is something unto itself — that's very similar to what happens in adapting a book into a play. The experience that I've had actually set me up perfectly for what Josh wanted and needed me to do.

I've been to quite a few Book-It shows, and I think that Braggsville walked off the path of the book a little more than their other adaptations. Was that something that was intended from the very beginning?

It wasn't intended to stray, necessarily. But the question was how do we bring the essence of this story to the stage in a way that people are going to be able to understand it and relate to it, and really take something away from it? Because we're dealing with the issues of race and history, and both of those are very complex issues.

We've got a passionate and powerful story, but it's also being told in a way that's really different and that is not easy to read. When you’re reading a book that's not easy to read you can take your time with it. You can set it down. You can come back to it.

You don't have that [luxury] with a play, so a lot of [the adaptation process] was about how we take these ideas, and these concepts, and this story that's being told, and make it digestible, but while not necessarily making it easy. That was the challenge.

For example, there are these chapters within the book where the narration shifts from he, she, they to you, and it's like the narrator who is not an omniscient narrator shifts into this very intimate interrogation of the specific lead characters. We could have just made those into monologues for the play, but it would have been boring.

Because there's so much being said in a way that is visceral, we needed to be able to make that digestible and also powerful. We needed an audience to be able to take something away from it. Just a one-way monologue wouldn't have worked, and so that essentially is how we ended up creating the character of The Poet.

Yeah, okay. I don't want to give the impression that it strays from the book. I think it works very well with the themes of the book, but Book-It tends to be pretty literal in its adaptations.

Yeah, and from the get-go Josh and I were having conversations about how this is different. The book itself, it feels different than a lot of the things that Book-It had taken on. So, we knew that it was going to be different in a number of different ways.

We could go virtually anywhere from here, but I wanted to ask you about the inclusion of Charleena Lyles’s name into the play — what was the decision to include her like? When did it happen?

Well, we did the same with Philando Castile after the decision regarding his case had come down. The book came out in early 2015 and I felt like, in all honesty, if either one of those people had been murdered at the time that Geronimo had been writing the book, their names would have been included as well.

It wasn't about sensationalism. It felt urgent and necessary because it had just happened, and to remind the audience that what is being talked about isn't distant history, that these are things that are still going on. It felt necessary.

Was there any internal debate then about including them?

I honestly don't remember whether it was Josh's idea or mine. It may have even been a cast member's idea. We talked about it for a couple minutes, Josh and I, and there wasn't any debate. Again, the idea behind the play in itself is to make what's going on in this book real.

Live people talking about these issues in front of someone makes them more real, makes it more urgent. And I don't think there's anything more urgent in regards to these issues than someone having been murdered within a few days or within a few months of the play itself.

It kind of felt like in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen where she keeps updating the book in new editions with the names of Black people who have been killed. It was incredibly powerful. It's been a year then since you adapted Braggsville, more or less. Has that affected your work at all? Has that adaptation done anything to your writing, do you think?

That's really hard for me to say. I feel like I haven't had enough time to bet that perspective yet, mainly because it still feels present. But the realm of theater feels more open to me; I can say that.

The idea of one-person shows feels more accessible to me. The idea of writing for theater feels more accessible. But yeah, I don't know whether it's changed my writing yet other than the fact that it definitely lit a fire under me and the world seems even more open and accessible.

I know that this question always comes up, but I think it comes up because people are interested: Can you talk about the relationship between spoken word in your writing and in writing the poems on the page?

There isn't much, if any, difference to me. I personally believe that a story of any kind, regardless of the form, isn't finished until it's shared aloud. So almost everything that I write I'm intending to have read aloud at some point; I feel like that's part of its journey for me.

There are some poems that almost feel like they're meant to live on the page more than read aloud, but that usually comes after the writing and I'm looking back at it as opposed to while I'm writing it.

I tend to do more editing for the page or for the stage as opposed to writing for the page or for the stage.

It was just announced last week that you are curating the 2018 Jack Straw Writer's Program.

Yeah. I was a 2013 Jack Straw writer, but it feels like yesterday. I loved the experience. I loved my cohort, and Stephanie Kallos was our curator. She was definitely influential in regards to my writing.

I've always been a fan of Jack Straw's work — the oral storytelling aspect of taking stories in any form and getting them heard, getting them into other people's ears. Not just getting these stories written and existing on the page, but getting them to a place where they can be heard by others.

I definitely feel more comfortable with how to bring the performance aspect out of something than how to write something. That's my own insecurity and my own work that I still have to do as a writer as I'm continuing to grow, and as I continue to work within the realm of publishing, within the realm of the page itself.

When it comes to performance, bringing something that's written to life, I feel more than capable in assisting other writers — writers who are very well established on the page — helping them to figure out, how can I take this thing that is static on the page and make it into a living, breathing form of art?

Okay. Is there anything you're looking for in particular in these people who you're choosing for the program?

Not as of yet. This just happened a couple of weeks ago, so I haven't gotten that far yet. I think in general I'm looking for stories of any kind that really move me. I have a feeling that the stories, poems, etc., that are taking the political and making it personal, or taking the personal and making it political. Those stories in general tend to move me. Those stories are definitely going to catch my eye, but I definitely don't have a requirement or a recipe at this point for what I am looking for.

When you were talking about your writing being the thing that you were most insecure about — I don't know if insecure is the right word. I don't want to put words in your mouth…

No, definitely.

Is that something that you are going to be focusing on personally as you move forward?

I continue to work on that, and that's where classes and writing fellowships come in handy. For me, I've found a lot of it comes to making the time for it. When I'm just focusing on my writing craft I tend to feel more secure with it. When I make the time just to focus on my craft as opposed to ‘I'm just going to pump out this poem,” I feel more secure with it.

Those are things that I'm consistently working on doing: some of it is setting aside the time and some of it is making time to read writers who are moving me, get exposed to new writers. Some of it is taking classes and workshops to continue to add to my toolbox, and some of it is making the time to just focus on the craft.

All right, so who are the writers who have been moving you lately?

Right now, Warsan Shire is one. She blew upsemi-recently as the poet behind a fair amount of the writing from Beyonce's Lemonade. I found out about her a couple years before that. She was at AWP when it was here in Seattle.

Ladan Osman is another one who I've been blown away by. I continue to be in awe of the two of them.

Other writers who are influencing me right now: T. Geronimo Johnson, Natalie Diaz, Ta Nehisi Coates, Douglas Kearney, Jamaal May, Patrick Rosal

It seems like you are very involved in the community, obviously, with your work with prisoners, and working with Jack Straw, and things. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your evolution as a citizen of poetry. Is this something that has always been important or do you feel as your stature has elevated in the community your commitment has grown as well?

I feel like I've always had it. It's just that the lens of how I'm helping has changed. I started out as working in social services, so I've always been a listener. I was a counselor for a long time, and it just slowly came about that as I was listening to people's stories and I was continuing to write my own, the opportunities to help people tell their stories in different ways started to present themselves.

Whether it was facilitating a workshop around writing, whether it was leading a workshop regarding youth empowerment, it still is helping people to tell their stories and being a witness to those stories. There's a saying, and I don't remember where it comes from, but listening is a transformative act. I, by listening, am changed, and so helping people to be able to tell their stories, it empowers me, and it changes me, and it helps me to grow.