Interview by Sarina Patel (Founder)
Joined by Briana Biswas & Zainab Raza (Interviewers)
This week, we selected DeeSoul, poet & current leader of the Stanford Spoken Word collective. We sat down with DeeSoul to talk about what it means to be a "present" poet, reframing poetry as a protest device, and the importance of playing video games.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Novel Minority (NM): Welcome to our fifth edition of Writer Of The Week! Today, we're joined by DeeSoul.
DeeSoul (DS): Thank you for having me!
NM: I guess my first question is, what inspired you to try slam poetry? DS: I was always drawn to theater in high school -- my uncle is in a spoken word fusion band in San Diego. He was also on a team with Rudy Francisco, who I've gotten to meet, so watching Rudy do his thing really inspired me. I never got to do a slam until after my last year of high school, but I did spoken word all through high school.
NM: So you were a theater kid? DS: I was a theatrical kid. I dipped my hand in a lot of baskets...I did student government, I did theater, and in my last year of high school I did journalism.
NM: That's so fascinating! Still can't get past how you're the second poet we've interviewed who has some connection to Rudy Francisco.
DS: Really? Wow. [The other poet] probably has a much deeper connection to Rudy; I've only met him a couple times in passing.
NM: On your Instagram, you mentioned being an Editorial Assistant at Adroit Journal. How has that been for you? DS: I absolutely love it! They're really supportive of me as a poet and so easy to work with. It's a wonderful experience being on an editorial team.
NM: So you don't oversee the actual poetry reading, but instead what's going on behind the scenes?
DG: Yeah! I clean up the masthead, collect info on poets in our organization who have published books, scheduled meetings for the leadership teams; I'm the person for a lot of different things.
NM: Something people may not know is that you've also been interviewed by Adroit Journal. In fact, you mentioned something in your interview with Adroit that's been in my head all day...you said you're a "poet of the present". Could you talk a little bit more about that?
DS: I think I get really obsessed with poetry that concerns me as I am right now. I write a lot about how I feel: as a Black person currently, as a queer person currently. But I've also been getting more into Afrofuturist work. And I'm a big fan of Danez Smith.
NM: Who isn't? DS: Yeah! I've also been reading a lot of Porsha Olayiwola, a self-proclaimed Afrofuturist. How do we imagine new and different worlds for Black people and people of color?
NM: When we think of how people of color fit into fantasy, we lack escapism. People of color, we don't really get to escape into fantasy & just enjoy it the same way that other readers might be privileged to. Have you read the book 'Raybearer'?
DS: I have not, no.
NM: Ah! I'm also getting into non-Eurocentric dystopian fantasy, and 'Raybearer' is a really great example of that. It's Afrofuturist as well. You would love it.
DS: Who's it by? NM: Let me check, actually. [checks Goodreads] Jordan Ifueko.
NM: You have these two poems that I love: 'Confessions Of A Twenty-Something Romantic' & 'Dog Days', and I love how you conceptualize time in both. Like you said, you're a poet of the present--you like to think about what's happening now instead of imagining how things could go [later]. So I wanted to know: what are your thoughts on being able to be "present" with the things you love?
DS: [laughs] It's very freeing. I'm very glad to be in love! I just taught a workshop recently: Poetry Is Protest. And I say "protest" as in pushing against something. I think poems of love are a form of protest. As a Black person, as a queer person, there are a lot of things I could be sad about. I protest that by trying to love instead, by trying to curate joy instead. Poets of color are [often] expected to write about their trauma. No! I want to write about the person I love, and I have the agency to do that as much as any minority poet.
NM: Right, and something we uphold at Novel Minority is breaking away from those traditional diaspora narratives when you feel they're inauthentic to your personal story. Mango poems are great, and they have an important role in introducing white people to our cultures, but we don't ever want BIPOC teens to feel limited in their storytelling capabilities. Which brings me to my next question: What are some ways you want to see teens break through these non-traditional diaspora narratives?
DS: Make the art that deep, deep down feels necessary. If the world didn't matter, what is it that you would create? Don't tell a story that you think others would want to hear. If that is your mango poetry, then write that. But do it because it's what feels necessary to you. Not because it's going to get you the likes, or the followers.
NM: Something interesting you mentioned earlier was using poetry as protest. Do you think poetry is inherently revolutionary, or do you think the people behind it make poetry revolutionary?
DS: I think it's the people. There are a lot of people who write un-revolutionary poetry! [laughs] If that's the case, poetry cannot equal revolution. I think people do revolutionary things with poetry. You know, poetry is a tool--it's more about how you use it. I love thinking about poetry through the lens of protest though, and how people resist through art.
NM: Still, when we think of poetry, it's often in terms of "finding your voice". Especially for young poets...that's what they always tell you. Since you & I are both spoken word poets, I wanted to ask you: how did you find your voice?
DS: Watching other people do poetry, & deciding what I did and didn't like. I always gravitate towards poetry that sounds really conversational--that usually ends up being what I write.
NM: I was recently mentored by someone for my spoken word poetry, and he told me that I should always keep a "living library" of poems in my head to recite at any given moment--not necessarily poems that I love, but poems that I live by. Are any poems living rent-free in your head right now?
DS: Several! [laughs] Water by Porsha Olayiwola, Mental Health Barz by Ebony Stewart, Dear White America & Dinosaurs In The Hood [both] by Danez Smith, Good Bones by Maggie Smith, Introduction To Quantum Theory by Franny Choi, To The Man Standing On The Street Corner Holding The Sign That Says 'God Hates Gays' by Rudy Francisco.
NM: What is it like directing Stanford's Spoken Word Collective?
DS: I wouldn't trade it for the world. I absolutely love that group--it's a labor of love...I mean, it's a lot of work. We do auditions because we want to make sure the people who get into this group are really committed to helping the poetry community.
NM: So...on behalf of the NovelTeam because we're all really curious...I have to ask. What is it like to work with Arpi Park?
DS: [laughs] Yes. So here's the thing. I'm Poet Dad. I did not realize how popular Arpi was until we went to CUPSI. People would come up to him and ask him if he was Arpi...and I was like. Now wait a minute. When did you get so popular?
On our YouTube videos, the ones that have the most views or comments are the ones with Arpi Park in them. Now ain't that something!
NM: What is it like to have a YouTuber--and just poets with different skill sets, because everyone who goes to Stanford is insanely talented-- on your team?
DS: He's not YouTuber Arpi when he's working with the group. He's very much himself. He's a wonderful guy, though. He adds a very different dynamic to the group, because he started out in speech & debate.
NM: That's how I started, too. I think you can trace the origin stories of different spoken word poets using their vocal inflections. Can't you? DS: Oh, for sure. I think there's something to be said for the speech & debate to spoken word pipeline.
NM: Yes. It's a cult, and we all escaped.
DS: [laughs] So many of my amazing poet friends did speech & debate first. It's interesting.
NM: Recently, you published a book called "Running From Streetlights". I absolutely loved your explanation behind the title. Could you share it with us? DS: I came up with the idea last summer, while we were fighting two pandemics: COVID-19 and also police brutality. In Black mythology, you have mothers, aunties, grandmothers saying: "Be inside before the streetlights come on!" Well, what do the streetlights represent? The coming of darkness. Lights come on, darkness falls outside, that's when danger for Black people usually happens. This book asks: what does it mean for me to run from these streetlights, and what do they represent?
NM: What was your favorite part of writing the book?
DS: How cohesive it was. I felt really satisfied to look at my work and see a narrative that I alone had constructed.
NM: I think poetry projects like that are really fascinating. I mean, youth poets are enjoying a moment right now--me, you, Amanda Gorman...totally on the same level of fame, of course. [laughs] But we're getting celebrated in the public eye, so I wanted to ask you: who has been your favorite youth poet to watch? DS: It's really funny...I'm sure you got this too...all the aunties and uncles texting during the inauguration like, "Hey there's a poet on stage! Reminds me of you!" Seriously, I have so many youth poet friends that I want to see succeed. Sometimes, the world forgets how talented young people are, so I'm happy to see youth poets get the flowers they deserve. I'm excited to see how they think differently from me.
NM: I love that expression: "get their flowers". I think youth poets need more recognition. Are there some ways that older BIPOC poets could pay it forward? DS: Spotlighting non-famous poets. Telling someone about an underrated poet who excites you. Being honest about the publishing process & their successes. I think it would help young writers know what to expect.
NM: I definitely agree. What is something you want young writers to do, especially at NovelMinority, to establish solidarity with one another? DS: Celebrate each others' successes. The writing world is so much bigger than it seems. Talk to each other about poetry, ask each other about craft--but most importantly, build friendships outside of just writing. Don't turn everything into competition. These people could be your poetry peers well into adulthood!
NM: Your stage name is DeeSoul. What does "DeeSoul" do when he's not writing poetry? As in: what does your poetry alter ego do...do you just put him on a rack somewhere? Use him to water your plants?
DS: You know, I go by DeeSoul in my regular life too. I think I'm evolving into the poetry alter ego.
NM: So it's not like a Nicki Minaj / Roman Zolanski situation...
DS: [laughs] Right, DeeSoul is who I am. If he's not writing, he's thinking about writing or enjoying things that involve storytelling. I really love video games--the storytelling device that video games can be. Video games allow us to tell stories in new and interactive ways. So if I'm not "poeting", then I'm playing video games.
NM: What's your favorite storyline in a video game?
DS: I'm playing this game called "Control" on PlayStation. I love [its] gradual storytelling.
NM: I see. I respect people who have the attention span for Easter eggs and foreshadowing, because I don't. [laughs]. No plot, just vibes. But I think another really cool antiparallel here is the way we interact with video games vs poetry. Video games are usually played with someone next to you or in your mic--you're never truly alone. But poetry has earned a reputation of solitary work. How do you make poetry, like video games, a communal experience? DS: Both are solitary acts that I do in the presence of other people. I love having people in the experience with me--that's why I gravitate towards spoken word and fellowships. I want a collaborative experience. I believe in my work, but nothing I do is done in a vacuum.
NM: Vacuum? Wow. I love Writer Of The Week. Everyone comes up with these [poetry snaps] lines.
DS: You know, that's all I really aspire to be. Someone who has memorable quotes.
NM: One last question--it's a Writer Of The Week tradition & something we do at the end of each interview--you have one sentence of advice to offer young BIPOC writers. What will it be? DS: Write what feels necessary. Ask yourself: did I write what I wanted to say? If not, keep writing.