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Tour Log: August 11th

Interview with Glenis Sherer
by Jordan Green

Glenis Sherer is a black female bard of the New South, who sings a beautiful and pointed language of righteous justice in the poisoned discourse of a region crippled again and again by its prejudices, whose words burn through Confederate flags. She is the mother of two twin daughters, Celeste and Amber. Her first book of poetry, Mama's Magic , will be released by Alexander Publishing at the end of the summer and a video about her, "Home-Made", will be out this winter.

Jordan Green: You're father was in the military and he was also a performer?

Glenis Sherer: Yeah, my father was a blues-jazz pianist. He was in the military. There were five kids. I just found this out, actually this week, that he actually made the Air Force Band Orchestra. During that time he decided not to do it because he didn't want to be away from the family. He would have had to travel six months out of the year. That made me really sad to hear that because I really wish that he would have pursued that dream. But I understand that having those family obligations he did that. I didn't realize until recently in my thirties that I'm doing a lot of what he would have done.

Jordan: Did he instill a love of culture, and performance, and music in you?

Glenis: It wasn't something that was done consciously. It was just that there was always music playing around our house. I always have had a great interest in performance. I like to go to concerts. I love to see musicians. That's what inspires me just as much as watching other poets read. I really like to see musicians and how they invoke spirit in what they're doing.

Jordan: Yeah, I wanted to ask about that because you're really a bard in that you bring real rhythm and a physical aspect to your poetry. Is that something that you're constantly working on?

Glenis: I think it's something that comes fairly natural because of my background of my dad and how he raised us. Music was such an integral part of our growing up. And dance is my first love, so there's always movement and rhythm in what I do. I don't really work at it so much as it's in the work as I do it. A lot of people ask if I choreograph my work. I basically just feel led by the words and do whatever I feel when I'm up on the stage. I try to be very present with the work. I'm really inspired by people like Bob Marley and I see what he did and how he moved and what he invoked. So I just really try to go back to the vein of where the poem came from, what led me to write it.

Jordan: What got you interested in words and literature?

Glenis: I've always read. I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not read. I always had a book with me. I traveled way before my family started travelling because I travelled in these books, and I always had these ideas and thoughts. When I was like five years old I had these little snapshots I would take of time and things that would happen to me. I heard somebody say recently that reading is a precursor to writing. And I think it's true. I think you're setting yourself up; it's like your palette. Filling a palette with paint. I was just reading all these books and thinking all these thought and reading these different authors. And then it just came to a point I think when I was twelve or thirteen when I felt like I was really full. I had this teacher who had a journal writing exercise we had to do for eight weeks. I started writing in my journal and I just never stopped. The poetry came out in the journals.

Jordan: You got to travel around a lot?

Glenis: My family traveled before I was even born. And they lived in places like Africa and Spain; they lived in Austin, Texas and Niagara Falls, New York. And France. I was born and they came back to South Carolina and had me. I was born at Sumter Air Force Base. And then we moved to Washington state. And then we moved to Italy, so I grew up some in Europe. And then we moved back to New Jersey. And then my father retired. But moving around like that was a great experience. I think it gave me great exposure to other folks and how other people lived. It also gave me a certain openness, I think, towards people. I'm not really territorial like I hear a lot of people are about certain places they live. I kind of believe in human -- you know, I believe in the world.

Jordan: So did that kind of fill you with a sense of universality?

Glenis: Yeah. I know that there are people fighting over property and land, you know, those kinds of power issues. But I can't really get myself into that, especially after having children. I feel like a human being is a human being.

Jordan: You and Pat Storm do a couple of poems together and I wondered how you got involved in taking your poems into schools. Do you still do that?

Glenis: I do. I think Pat works with a group of kids on an anti-violence campaign. Pat and I met because we're both in the slam world and we ended up being on the same team together. And we were at the Asheville Poetry Festival a couple of years ago and this group saw us and they asked us if we would come and do a workshop at their school. I was in Lexington, Kentucky and the kids were great; we just had a great time. So they ask us back every year. But the work I do, I do by myself. I travel around to schools in South Carolina and North Carolina.

Jordan: So you've been to Lexington twice or three times?

Glenis: Three times and I'm coming back for the Roots and Heritage Festival in October.

Jordan: One of the poems that I was really struck by that you read in Lexington, but not in Asheville, was your poem about the Confederate flag. I wondered if you could talk about your thoughts and feelings about that issue and what that symbol means to different people.

Glenis: That's really hard poem to do. It's not a poem for entertainment purposes. It's really trying to deal with the deep-seated issue. The background of the poem is I was in Columbia, South Carolina with my daughters and that flag was flying. They were five at the time and they asked me, "Mom, why is that flag still flying?"

In my heart of hearts, there was just no good answer I had for them. Also, the University of Georgia at the same time had asked me to come and do a poem on Affirmative Action and the Confederate flag. And I was like, "Do you really want me to do that?"

And they were like "yeah, we want your honest opinion." So that's what came out of that.

I understand that period in the South and what it means to some people, but on the other side, it means something totally different to the Black community. I can't speak for all Blacks; I just know for me it's very offensive to be driving down the road and have this Mack truck coming towards me with the Confederate flag. It's like it's driving right into my psyche, right into my heart. It brings up feelings of these folks that have died that were not honored. These people that their blood is still soaked in this ground. They were tormented and tortured most of their life. And then they never were acknowledged or had a decent burial. Of course, it's been 500 years ago, but it's something that's not been rectified. To see this flag that is flying in the face of all that, what kind of person would I be if I could not stand up for my ancestors, what I feel they were trying to fight to get out of. That's where that poem comes from.

Jordan: Yeah, and Black veterans of the Civil War aren't honored.

Glenis: Yeah, they're not honored. I saw a documentary on that not too long ago. It's like people don't even know that exists. We don't learn about it in high school. We didn't learn about it in elementary. There's just a whole part of history that's basically been swept under the rug. And I know a lot of people say, "Why don't you just forget that? Slavery's over and it's ..."

Well, it's not over if the Confederate flag is still flying and we're rectifying one part of that era, but we're not rectifying the other part. So that's where my heart is. And I really believe in that poem and I really believe that the Confederate flag will come home in South Carolina before I die. And I want to have a part in taking it down.

Jordan: The question I always ask when I see somebody come in a restaurant with a Confederate hat is: is this a person that wants to destroy me and everything I love or is it just somebody who has a sentimental attachment to the past? And I'm not really sure what the answer is.

Glenis: I know and I understand history. I understand how deep family ties are. I understand it on that level. I think there is a place for the Confederate flag; it just doesn't represent all the people. It could be put in a museum. It could be put somewhere where people can honor that which is theirs. But we can't honor ours with that. I do understand how people need to honor those connections, but we don't even get those connections. We don't even have those connections because some of that has been erased and washed away. So it brings up those feelings of history not being resolved or not honored. I see those little bumper stickers that say, "Heritage, Not Hate". But you know, I really wonder if people have done their homework and know what heritage they're talking about and like you said, it's a sentimental attachment and they haven't gone deeper to understand what the roots of that is.

Jordan: Yeah, I think South Carolina has kind of a reputation because of the Black church burnings and because they still fly the Confederate flag as being this recalcitrant, backwards racist state, so do you think it defies the norm of the country or is the country still in pretty much the same state of not acknowledging ...

Glenis: I wouldn't equate South Carolina with the rest of the country. I do think South Carolina has a ways to go as far as what they need to do about what's happened in the past, but then I also think the United States has quite a ways to go. I think there are places you can go in the United States where it's better, put it that way. But you know, in all of these things, I love South Carolina. I love the land. There are many things about the people that I love. It's part of my heritage. I also think there's work to be done. There's work for everybody! It's sad.

I noticed you had on an anti-racist shirt yesterday. Do you belong ...

Jordan: Yeah, Anti-Racist Action. It's an organization in Ohio of white radicals and Black folks who go out to Klan rallies and counter them at every stop and just videotape how the cops respond. But I'm kinda pissed off at `em right now because they wouldn't put me on their (e-mail) list serve and they wouldn't send me any magazines to take on my tour.

Glenis: Why?

Jordan: I don't know -- some internal politics that I'm not aware of, I'm sure.

Glenis: Oh God, that's terrible.

Jordan: I guess I'm just kind of out of the loop because I'm out of college now.

Glenis: Yeah.

Jordan: Okay, let me ask you how you see poetry as being a tool in countering injustices, carrying forward a spirit and a vision.

Glenis: Well, I think it's the only vehicle -- not just poetry, but the arts in general -- I think because it comes from some place that's deeper. It has nothing to do with the intellect or the academic. It has to do with the heart. And I think that's where you touch people, when you start speaking your truth or what's hurt you or injustice that's been done to you. I think that's very powerful. I think when you speak from that place you can open more doors than warring or fighting or putting others down -- which is basically voice. I think the voice is a very strong vehicle.

Of course, I also think action is important. You need to get out there and do grassroots programs and actively do something. But I think that through poetry, you can change someone's life with a poem. I've been changed by a poem and by poets. I think you have to give the opportunity to people to expand and open up. They can reach you and you can reach them. I'm real corny about that. I think it's a healer and it's one of the tools that we can use. One of the things that I like to do is I like to go in unorthodox places and do poetry. I go to churches and say things that don't get said in church. I go to cafes and I go to clubs, to anywhere that will have me. And then I also teach in the schools. I go and talk to these little babies that are forming their opinions and putting their whole life in order and also give them a skill -- writing -- that is very powerful and valuable. In some ways, it's just like one person at a time, but it's even broader than that. I think poets have a great mission. I love to hear different voices.

Jordan: Do you think that poetry has become kind of an alternative to political platforms? Is it an alternative to involvement in the political system?

Glenis: In some ways. I just think people are hungry and they haven't gotten fed. And so that's just one platform for people to speak out. I think it's a healthy platform because we don't have enough. I also think that we definitely still need to be active and we need to be involved in whatever issue we believe in. It is an alternative and I think people are routing themselves that way because it's very accessible. They can get there.

That's one concern I have about South Carolina is that they haven't caught on to that bandwagon yet. I go to other cities and there's just more happening with poetry. I run the slam down in Greenville, South Carolina, but it's just been really hard in the last couple years and pretty oppressive artistically as well as culturally.

Jordan: Why is that? Do you think people don't acknowledge their own inner talents and expression?

Glenis: I think they do, but most of it is channeled through the church. Which is wonderful and I think it's a great vehicle, but I think it's something different than being involved actively in the community. I think they don't have to be mutually exclusive, but I think most of the Bible Belt is just kind of fastened right in South Carolina. So I think it kind of hinders people from expressing what their true inner feeling is and everything is basically just translated into Bible terms instead of humanistic terms. There's only so far you can go with that.

Jordan: Do you think other parts of the South have really gotten involved in poetry besides Asheville?

Glenis: I think there are places. I think North Carolina -- Asheville being one of them -- is a little bit more involved. I do a lot of travelling and you know, Winston-Salem has a really nice little thing going on. I think there are some spots in Virginia (I think you can still call that the South). Lexington is not that bad. But I think for the most part, it doesn't seem to have caught on. But I think New Orleans ...

Jordan: Oh yeah, but I think New Orleans is kind of a different place.

Glenis: It seems like a different world! Exactly.

Jordan: Now, I know there's incredible poetry coming out of New Orleans!

So, how'd you get involved in the slam scene?

Glenis: I was in Greenville and really looking for something to do with my poetry. The only place that you could read was the university, but that was a whole `nother scene that just didn't really interest me. I read at the North Carolina Workshop Network. They were having a slam and I was like "what's that? Poetry slam? Never heard of it." That was about maybe three years ago. And I just traveled up hear on a lark to come and read. I caught the bug after seeing people do that and I'd never seen that in any way, shape, or form. That's how I got involved with the poetry slam world -- and Allen Wolf, whose basically the father of the south-east slam world. And then I started running my own slam down in Greenville, South Carolina. Then I just moved up here because I wanted to be closer to what was going on in the literary world.

Jordan: Yeah, cos I've done some investigation through the web and I've discovered all these little self-contained, vibrant slam scenes and communities of poets, and it's astounding to me. I haven't really done much slam poetry, but I'm really intrigued about how that energy coalesces and comes together.

Glenis: The Nationals which is August 19th through the 22nd in Austin ... The slam family is pretty intense. It is competitive, but in the end the competition is not really what's important; it's really people coming together and sharing poetry. So there'll be 200 poets there! And then what that brings in is a lot of other people who've never even heard poetry before. It's gonna be in so many different venues around the city. It's a pretty awesome experience.

Jordan: So what more would you want than to hang out with 200 poets from all over the country?

Glenis: That's right. The thing is I love it; I live for it. But at the end, after five days of non-stop poetry, man, you're like you just can't take anything else. You start resonating at this really high energy level and then you realize, I can't maintain this; it's time to go home. It's fun for five days, but (afterwards) I am so ready to leave. Cos it's crazy ...

Jordan: A little bit too much over-stimulation?

Glenis: You get overly-stimulated. You think it can't happen with poetry, but it does. You learn so much. You meet so many people from across the country, across the world really. Sweden and Germany are involved. So it's really a nice coming-together

It's international now. In the past, England was involved. It's growing. This is gonna be the largest slam that's ever been. There's 51 teams. It's massive.

Jordan: Yeah, Ron and I used to do the insomniacathons. You get to a point where you think you can be nourished off of listening to other people's expression. You're like, "I don't even need to sleep!"

Glenis: You do! How many years have you guys been doing the insomniacathons?

Jordan: Well, I guess that started out in 1992 (?). It started out in Louisville and we did one in Monterey, Kentucky -- my home town -- at the Monterey Firehouse. And then we've done them in New York and New Orleans.

Okay, so you ended up here in Black Mountain (North Carolina) because your parents retired here?

Glenis: Well, my parents retired in Greenville, South Carolina. I moved up here to be close to the literary scene. Black Mountain is just -- I moved up here a year ago -- really a great place. Of course, it's where Black Mountain College was. It feeds the soul. It's a great place to write. I like it. I see myself moving soon, probably in a year or two. I see myself moving to New York or something like that. I feel like what I do -- there's probably more opportunity, more cohorts to collaborate with.

Jordan: I think people probably know about Thomas Wolf and Black Mountain College, but I wondered if you could talk about the literary thing that's been going on here with more recent history with Poetry Alive!.

Glenis: Yeah, Poetry Alive! is about eleven years old. Bob Falls started it. And he used to work for the South Carolina Tax Commission. He quit his job and decided he wanted to do poetry and he got these people together to take poetry into the schools. When I came up to the Green Door and they saw me read and asked me if I wanted to go on the road.

And I said, "Yeah, that's exactly what I want to do!" So I did it for eight weeks. But having two kids, I can't stay on the road. I would have loved it. If I were single, I would have done that in a heartbeat. But it was great experience.

But I think he revolutionized poetry in the school system. It's a private business what he runs and he's doing it really well. He's opening up what poetry means to people. I don't know about you, but I got some pretty boring stuff when I was growing up going to school -- about poetry. I had a different concept of what poetry was. And they're taking some of the classics in and some of the contemporaries in and bringing it to life -- which I think is what poetry was meant to be.

It was meant to be out in the open. And I think it can be introverted and on the page. But I think it really speaks more when it's read out loud in front of a group of people and people can really get into it.

They used to have the Poetry Festival every summer, but this is the first year they haven't done it. They didn't get enough people coming. And they had these big names; they had Yusef Kumenyaka, Maxine Kumin, Mary Oliver, anybody you can think of coming to these festivals. And the support wasn't great enough.

Jordan: Oh, you mean in terms of an audience?

Glenis: Yeah, it's really a sad thing. Even more to me than the Poetry Slam, that was like ... People would come from all over the world to read at the Poetry Festival, people who were in love with words. It was just incredible.

Jordan: In terms of going into schools with poetry, what is that transformation like when you see a kid realize that their own words and experience have a vibrance ...

Glenis: Well, I think that's why I do it. Because it's certainly not for the pay. It's peanuts. It's the kids. I will have kids in a class -- and I'm only there for a week or two weeks -- and I won't know who the shy kids are or the kids who don't do well in school. I treat `em all the same. These kids shock me every time. They reach down deep and they come up with some beautiful pieces.

To me, it's a very easy job. You know, I go in and I do poetry and then I leave. It's not a struggle. I don't have to grade `em; I don't have to discipline `em. I just go in and have fun and teach `em what I know about life.

Jordan: One thing I like about your poems is you have that range between political liberation and just a love poem, which comes down to me to be just an affirmation of everything human. And I think it's real accessible. That's not really a question.

Glenis: Well, I appreciate that. I try to be experimental and work on a range of things. I want to be published. But I also want to be accessible on the stage. I really want people to be able to walk into my work and understand what it's about. First and foremost, I am writing about myself. Definitely, I think I'm just writing about being a human being and dealing with the struggles that every human being deals with. That's all I know to do. I don't know how to write any other way.

Jordan: So what's the strangest and the most bizarre audiences that you've ever had?

Glenis: We did this Deacon's Lunchbox Festival. It was in Round Mountain, Tennessee and it was a really scary thing. It was all these people with their Harley-Davidson motorcycles. My friend was like, "You need to do that Confederate flag poem."

I was like, "No, I want to live." That was the strangest.

The second strangest was I did a residency at a school in Myrtle Beach. You have to do a community service when you go to these schools, so I they got me a community service project and I went into the senior citizen's home. Well, it was one of those transitional homes for people who are coming from the hospital or going to the hospital. They're on lithium or some kind of drug. And they had these people that were sitting there and they couldn't understand anything that I was saying. There were like two that were maybe with it enough you could see in their eyes. That was the strangest reading that I ever had and also probably touched me more than any other reading that I've had because these people that were getting ready to leave life I could feel their pain. They were really, really old people and they were just barely there. They just had `em hanging on by medication. It was a humbling experience.

Jordan: Yeah, I talked to these people in New Orleans (Circus Ridiculous) that have kind of a punk rock drag queen circus. They were talking about going to this biker bar in rural Louisiana to do this gig and they're like, "Oh my God, we're never gonna get out of here alive!"

They said the bikers were like, "That's the funniest shit we've ever seen!"

Glenis: Are you serious? That's funny. You never know.

Jordan: Yeah, you never know on what level you're gonna connect with people.

Glenis: You don't. That's the thing about poetry is I think it's a common denominator.

Jordan: Yeah. Okay, for a last question, what are you reading right now?

Glenis: Right now, who I'm reading is a poet called Nikky Finney.

Jordan: Oh yeah, I know Nikky.

Glenis: She sent me her book when I was in Lexington -- Rice. We have a lot in common. We're both originally from South Carolina. I really like her work.

Another person I've been -- not reading, but listening to because I do a lot of traveling -- is Derek Walcott. When I first read him or heard him, I didn't think he was that accessible, but you really have to have an ear to listen to his work. But he is just phenomenal. His work is just amazing. I feel like -- you know how you encounter something and you realize it's gonna change you, the way you view the world, and how you write, and so forth? Well, that's how I feel about Derek Walcott right now. I feel like my life is being changed.

Jordan: I've heard that he's a really formal poet.

Glenis: He is very formal. That's the thing -- you know, the door just kind of shut when I first heard him. But when I really listen to him, oh he has this one poem that's just phenomenal! I read all types of work. I don't really stay with one school. He's one person that's really inspired me.

I guess the person that I'm most into at this point is this guy from London. His name is Benjamin Obadiah Zephaniah. He's a Jamaican poet.

Jordan: Oh okay, so that's dub poetry then.

Glenis: Dub poetry, yeah. And he's totally awesome. (tape cut off)

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