Updated: Apr 9, 2021
By Sarina Patel
Founder of NovelMinority
This week, we selected Summer Durant, a spoken word poet & TEDx speaker working at the intersection of law, race, and healthcare. We sat down with Durant to talk D.C. slam poetry culture, having Rudy Francisco as an "uncle coach", and trivializing trauma with a single word.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
NovelMinority (NM): What inspired you to start poetry?
Summer Durant (SD): My mother's Indian and my father's Black. My mother's father, he would write a lot. I would sit next to him and he would read [his] poems to me. And then, when I was much older and touring colleges, I attended this college's prospective student week. They had a spoken word group perform, and I remember thinking that was the first time I felt in community. Up until then, I had never considered myself a performance poet. I just wanted to be in community. Then I went to CUPSI. Do you know what CUPSI is?
NM: Yeah, I know CUPSI [is a slam poetry competition].
SD: So I went...not as a competing poet or anything, but just to be in community again. I left that space feeling really inspired, and then that fall, I performed my first poem. The rest is history!
NM: Wow. That's a great origin story. I need to work on mine now...I only got into poetry because I was bribed to write a birthday poem in fourth grade...
SD: [laughs] I think anything that's rooted in sharing with people is perfect.
NM: What you said was perfect! I'd also like to mention that you said the words "in community". I know the reason you and I got into spoken word is that we wanted to build a community with our words. How does that intention reflect in your practice? SD: That's a really good question. My entire experience with slam poetry is community-based...there was literally just a space in the club [at my college] and in the community that people needed me to fill. They needed me and I wanted to write things that would move them...because we weren't hearing a lot of that. I went to a PWI.
NM: Oh, yeah...now I have more questions...
SD: Yeah! So sometimes we'd be in those spaces and forget. We'd leave, and be like: 'Where are we?' We weren't really allowed to be ourselves outside of spaces [like slam poetry].
NM: What was your experience at a PWI? SD: I grew up in DC, and I wanted to go far away.
NM: [laughs] What happened?
SD: [laughs] Yeah, 'what happened' is right! My school offered the best financial aid. I went to a school in Virginia...sorry if you like Virginia...
NM: I have no personal vendetta against Virginia, sorry! SD: [laughs] I do! I was forced to move from D.C. to Virginia for high school. It was hard to be completely uprooted at 14. So I chose Georgetown because it was close to home and wanting to find myself in another space. And I loved it.
NM: That's so interesting! One thing that you brought up was how trauma informed your poetry. One of the things that we do at NM is tell BIPOC teen writers that you don't have to manufacture trauma for white entertainment. So what is your experience with that process?
SD: I think that's a great point to bring up. It's important to me too. I have a friend who wrote about it--about divorcing your trauma--and how it can be hard to untangle your trauma from your story. Art is something that people tend to love and cherish without necessarily loving and cherishing the artist behind it. I think there is a pressure to consistently write about trauma, because it sometimes gets you points in competitive spaces. And it can feel rewarding to do that too.
NM: Right. You know, even at your expense, those stories will win something and that makes it all worth it.
SD: There are so many times where I've walked offstage feeling physically drained and people are ready to congratulate me. It's like: no, that was a difficult performance for me.
NM: I had a similar situation when performing a "trauma poem" recently. Having to perform it, edit it, cut out parts...it was so draining. Everyone glamorizes the suffering artist...but it's less easy when you're the one suffering. [laughs].
NM: When we conceptualize the golden ratio of spoken word poetry, 20% is the writing and 80% is the delivery. So how did you find your voice? SD: D.C. has a pretty robust slam poetry culture. But I didn't really participate in it until junior year of college. I'm sure I still have a poet voice, but I think [in the beginning] people tend to emulate the poets who inspire them. The people who inspire me are not necessarily the ones I've been compared to.
NM: Yeah, you mentioned that in one of our earlier conversations! SD: Yeah! My cadence is what feels natural to me, and a lot of my coaches have been like: "That's so weird!"
NM: You have a spoken word coach? SD: Mhm! At Georgetown, when I did CUPSI, I learned from two amazing coaches. Imani Cezanne was one and she introduced us to so many other amazing people. I'm sure you've heard of Rudy Francisco--yeah, he was our "uncle coach"!
NM: Oh wow! There's so much information to pull from what you just said. Namely, I'm one connection away from Rudy Francisco. But I'm also curious, because I myself have a few spoken word friends who are also music lovers: how does music impact your delivery? Some people say that spoken word is rap without music.
SD: I convinced myself that it was just talking. I talk a lot, as I'm sure you can tell! I do sing, and my cadence reflects that.
NM: That's so nice! I'm a speech & debate kid, unfortunately, so my speaking voice is my debating voice. Everyone tells me: "Why do you sound like you're going to divorce me & tell me, 'Well, if you look in THIS part of the contract?'"
SD: [laughs] Please!
NM: Something you mentioned was your performance anxiety. I'm curious: how much of that has been impacted by impostor syndrome [of being a woman of color]? SD: That is an important intersection to look at. I definitely have to think about that more! Words have such power in my life. A lot of poets have this natural confidence about explaining themselves, and for me, that's always been hard.
I don't have faith that someone will endeavor to understand me.
NM: You're right. As women of color, we don't get those second chances. When we're invited to speak, it's almost always about a facet of our identity. And when we speak about it, we must be pretty and package it in a way that white entertainment can digest...sometimes, even, resell back to their audiences.
NM: You said that you are both Black and Indian. How have those two ethnic groups impacted your poetic lens? There is a lot of anti-Blackness in the Indian community, at least from what I've seen, so...
SD: Yes, thank you! I was going to say it. Thank you for saying it first. One thing I see with mixed narratives is that equality is a means of achieving equity. But it's not the same, you know? When we're talking about exchanged harms--which is something I talk about a lot--there is of course an exchanged harm, even across BIPOC communities. We do hurt each other sometimes, but that doesn't make the harm equatable. Anti-Blackness and fetishization are harmful, but they're not the same. And to equate them is...inaccurate.
NM: Yeah, I do find it messed up when people say "Yeah, X group's trauma is equal to X group's trauma!" It's never equal, shouldn't have to be, and especially shouldn't be modeled like that.
SD: It's true. It's hard, because there is a reluctance to talk about these things.
NM: You recently received--this really interested me--the Diaspora Award For Commitment Towards Diversity In The Arts. Beyond mango poetry, what are some ways you want to see BIPOC creatives explore non-traditional diaspora narratives? SD: I think talking about the little moments in life can also be the poem. Talking about your identity without feeling like you have to explain, or italicize, everything.
NM: Yeah, I agree. I think poetry is also about what we don't say, or what we simply refuse to explain.
SD: There's one I love on Button Poetry, called "Same"...
NM: Wait, "Same"? As in, your poem? I just watched that before this interview!
SD: [laughs] Yeah. It's not my favorite poem ever, just my favorite that I'VE written.
NM: I love your poem! My favorite poetry piece of yours would be "Future Not Fetish", but I do like "Same". It's so good because it talks about how we trivialize people's pain, even with a word as simple as "same".
NM: Same. Wait...
SD: [laughs] No, it's true! A few people told me that this poem is confusing. I don't even know what it means, sometimes. I wrote this poem to be in community, and that's the reason I write all my poetry. But I think above all, I wrote it for me. Maybe you'll agree with it. Maybe you won't. Either way, I'm writing this poem for me and that's what matters.
NM: I got this tip a while ago, which was: you shouldn't feel selfish for creating art that brings YOU joy. As women of color AND artists, we're always taught to produce for others and never really for ourselves. So I think we forget the joy of creating just for the sake of creating. Just for ourselves, you know? SD: Absolutely.
NM: One last question--this is a Novel Minority tradition--you have one last sentence of advice to offer young BIPOC writers. What will it be? SD: When you're a BIPOC writer, there are going to be many times in your creative career when you look at the room you're in and you wonder: does anyone else feel what I'm feeling? You might be made to feel like your experiences are wrong, or dramatic. But I want young BIPOC writers to know that whenever you feel that itch or discomfort that something isn't right, it isn't. My one sentence would be: trust yourself and your voice...never compromise for the folks questioning those experiences.