The PB Interview, Take One
As some of you know, I make my living, in part, by interviewing artists and arts workers about their work. I am always gratified when someone says, “Oh, that’s a hard question,” while being grateful that I don’t actually have to answer it. But I thought it was time I turned the tables on myself, so I asked a couple of my friends if they would interview me. Here’s the first one—five questions from Philippa PB Hughes, who is the founder of The Pink Line Project, a DC Arts Commissioner, a radio host, a surfer, an all-around arts champion and connector, and a friend who inspires me every day. You can read my interview with Philippa from when we first met here.
PPBH: Has writing poetry ever saved you? How?
PB: Has a poem ever stopped me from doing something stupid or throwing myself off a cliff I had no business being on in the first place? No. But has writing poetry save me over the long-term? Yes. With each poem I write I learn a little bit more about myself. Why I both crave being touched and hate being touched. The ways I’ve learned to hide and the reasons I want to hide in the first place. What I want romantic love to be and what I believe it actually is. Who God is to me. There is a certain amount of disdain that is attached to the idea of poetry as therapy, yet the writing of poetry has always functioned therapeutically for me even if the poems didn’t seem so on the surface. I can’t say I always know what the poem is teaching me in the moment—I purposely try to clear space for my unconscious self to do the writing as she is way smarter and whole and closer to God and better able to allow his wisdom to come out and play when I write—but eventually, sometimes years later and only after someone else has commented on a certain poem, my brain catches up with my spirit’s wisdom. What I’ve been learning lately, for example, is how much of a political creature I am. Having for years prided myself on not reading the newspaper, it turns out that I actually have a great deal to say on our country’s approach to terrorism, to race, to the political world. I am surprised by the me I meet in my poems all the time. Though I feel I should add that the poems aren’t always factually autobiographical, they do always truthfully represent my world as I experience it.
PPBH. Has your poetry saved someone else? How?
PB: When I was on a fellowship in Provincetown I did a reading at a small space in another town on the lower Cape. (I don’t remember which one exactly.) It had been a frustrating day as my work had been savaged by a three-name poet who didn’t care that the project I was working on was a way to fracture narrative. I left my 10-minute conference with her bruised, battered, and—I realized later—unable to write for the rest of my time there. If I remember correctly, it was an audience of mostly women, mostly older women. (I had just turned 30 at the time, and I believe there were a lot of forty-somethings and up in the audience.) I read a poem called “The Two Jemimas,” which was a blues inspired by a story quilt by the artist Faith Ringgold. The gist of the poem was that a woman had lost a great deal of weight—as I had just done—but in doing so she’d also lost her sense of self and was floundering. After the reading, a woman I didn’t know came up to me and asked if the poem had been published because she needed to share it with a friend. It was a relatively brand new poem, so I just gave her my reading copy. That was the first time I was aware that my work mattered whether or not it got the stamp of approval from other poets. That I wasn’t writing for other poets, but for other women. I don’t know if I can say that that poem saved that woman or her friend, but it said something that she needed to hear, which is the beginning, I think, of salvation.
PPBH. Why does poetry matter?
PB: Poetry, like all art, is about having a voice. It’s about being heard—whether you are the person making the work or the person recognizing what it is you want to say in the work of someone else. I don’t know if there’s any single more important human desire than to be heard. I’ve been thinking a lot about why people turn away from God or deny His existence, when it seems clear that as children we’re born with a knowledge of him. I think it’s because we don’t feel heard by him. Words are power, and whether your words are actual words—as with writers—or you work in a gestural language as painters and visual artists do, words matter. Creating matters. It’s when we’re closest to God.
PPBH: What is the best idea you ever had?
PB: I’d like to say learning to read but I guess I can’t really claim that that was my idea, can I? That was someone else’s idea in a school in Trinidad a long long time ago. This is a hard one; it feels like too many of my decisions/actions are interconnected for me to really pinpoint the one idea that was the best of the bunch. So here are some great ideas I’ve had: to take Maureen Seaton’s poetry workshop in 1996 although I didn’t apply till the very last day of the application period and had to send my application by Fed-Ex; after graduate school, to not take a job unless it was at the Library of Congress or the NEA because I was tired of working for companies whose mission I didn’t care about; to be proactive about starting relationships with people I feel simpatico with; to become best friends with my sister; to rekindle my relationship with God; to fall in love with myself; to stop living here (in the DC area) as if I was about to move any minute and to consciously put down roots here.
PPBH. Is it possible to teach optimism?
PB: I think it’s possible to teach optimism by modeling it, and I hope that’s something I do no matter how dire everything feels. I like to think that if I can continue to laugh about the time I was unable to walk (after being bedridden for a couple of months) and fell stark naked out of my hospital bed while an aide was trying to give me a sponge bath which then meant I had to be lifted back into bed—still stark naked—by a gang of five people, then I am by nature an optimistic person. I think it’s not a question of whether it’s possible to teach optimism, it’s a question of why some people are unwilling to let themselves be optimists. I get that misery is more comfortable because you don’t have to risk anything, but misery is also boring as all hell. I also think you can be both a realist and an optimist. I read something the other day where someone said something to the effect of whether you see the glass as half-empty or half-full, the important thing is to recognize there’s still always water in the glass. And that’s what I think we can teach—how to see the water in the glass.