(originally posted on Velvet Park)
I caught up with Sonya Renee Taylor at L.A.’s famous Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffle restaurant this week to get the low down on what has been happening in her poet's life. We have recently switched coasts (She back to east and me, newly here, on the west.) and I wanted to compare notes about living the artist's life – fulltime. Sonya is an HBO Def Poet and National Poetry SLAM winner and over the last couple of years has taken the leap to make her living as a fulltime artist on the road. Her verbal acrobatics have taken her from Texas to New Zealand and back again.
I first saw Sonya do her thing at a venue in Washington, D.C. about five years ago. D.C. is one of those places where you can literally go to a venue every night and hear some amazing work being delivered. From the moment Sonya hits the stage, you can’t take your eyes off her. She is this voluptuous, confident sister armed with take-no-prisoner poetry. That particular night she came with an over-the-top, part erotic, part public service announcement piece on using condoms. By the time it was all said and done, the audience was left begging for more. I didn’t know Sonya at the time, so count me shocked when a few months later, while attending the March for Women’s Lives on the National Mall, I heard her distinct and booming voice coming from the main stage. Her call to arms piece “What Women Deserve” energized the 1.6 million people in attendance in a way few of the other headliners were able to.
About a year later we ended up sharing the same stage at MotherTongue, a women’s open mic, and after the show we formally met. I was not surprised to discover that Sonya has a master's degree in non-profit management and has devoted a good chunk of her adult life to issues impacting a great many marginalized populations. She has lent her expertise to educating and protecting sex workers, getting the word out on HIV prevention, and protecting women’s right to choose. No wonder her poetry comes off so real. She is at ground zero on many of these important issues and knows the ramifications if we remain silent and do nothing.
But Sonya knows how to keep it fun and sexy on stage as well. She wants people to enjoy themselves and for those who come to her performance with a certain set of expectations she wants to shake them of those. “People who are new to slam/performance poetry sometimes believe it’s not as good as 'page poetry' or worse, that it is just plain bad,” she shares. Five minutes into any of her sets and they quickly abandon those notions. She says she loves to watch the looks on her audiences’ faces when she goes to some taboo place through her work. “First, they are always shocked, then self-conscious and eventually they loosen up and go along for the ride,” she says. During her performances she brings as much of herself to the stage as she can. She references her blackness, her womanness, her thickness and strength. “People know when you are faking it. They know when you are just pushing the words out and don’t care whether or how they land.”
So how does she keep her work and herself fresh when she is performing at such a constant pace? She says she has over 800 poems in her catalog to pick from (about 200 of them memorized) and tries to read her audience at the very beginning to get a sense of what they need to hear. She admits there are times that she gets bored with doing her “top 10” – she gets a lot of requests for her signature pieces – but figures there are worse ways a girl could make a living than telling her truth through her poetry.
Sonya’s recent move back to the east coast is also inspiring her to take some new risks with her work. She wants to adopt a new tone for her poetry and address subjects that she might have neglected in the past. She is also putting together a poetry book, A Little Truth on Your Shirt, that will debut in early 2010. (Her latest CD, Thick Girl, can be purchased at www.PoetCD.com.) Any trepidation she has about switching things up on her fans she keeps in check by recognizing that, as she grows, her work grows, and that’s good for everyone involved.
I recently discovered a video performance of one of her poems that I’ve never heard. I don’t know if “Slices” is in her top 10, but it should be. Enjoy!