Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Split This Rock Interview with Terisa Siagatonu

By Franny Choi

Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 19-21, 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170.

Full festival schedule available on the
website. The Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock.

Events Open to the Public

Nightly Free Poetry Readings: National Housing Center Auditorium

Social Change Book Fair: Saturday, April 21, 10 am-3:30 pm, National Housing Center (Free)

Poetry Public Action: Louder Than a Gun – Poem for Our Lives, Friday, April 20, 9-10 am, Lafayette Park (Free)

Open Mics: Thursday, April 19 & Friday, April 20, 10 pm-12 am, Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, Cullen Room, 1025 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 ($5 at the door)

Closing Party: Saturday, April 21, 10 pm-1 am, National Housing Center Auditorium ($10 online and at the door)

Open mics and the closing party are free to festival registrants.

* * *
Terisa Siagatonu is an award winning poet, arts educator, organizer, and mental health advocate from the Bay Area. With over a decade of experience in writing, performing, competing, coaching, and teaching poetry, Terisa has shared her work in places ranging from the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, France, to the White House. A recipient of President Obama’s Champion of Change Award (2012), Terisa's writing has been featured on Button Poetry, CNN, NBCNews, NPR, Huffington Post, Everyday Feminism, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Upworthy and elsewhere. A national poetry slam finalist, Terisa is also a poetry slam coach on both the youth and collegiate level, having coached five poetry slam teams to place Top 20 in the nation. Alongside being a full-time artist, Terisa is also a Senior Poet Mentor with Youth Speaks, Inc., leading poetry lessons with Bay Area high school students and professional development with teaching artists. She is one of the co-creators of The Root Slam, a poetry venue based in Oakland, CA, and was a member of the 2017 Root Slam Poetry Slam Team, helping her team to place 5th in the Nation at the 2017 National Poetry Slam competition. Terisa holds a Masters in Marriage/Family Therapy from the University of Southern California, aiming to merge art and therapy throughout her healing work both on and off-stage.

* * *

Franny Choi (FC): Can you talk about one of your proudest poetry-related moments over the past year or so?

Terisa Siagatonu (TS): Last year, I had the opportunity to visit American Samoa and spend an entire week leading writing workshops for 5 of the high schools on the island, including the one my father attended when he was a teenager. The last time I visited American Samoa was 12 years ago, and I remember being 17 years old and complaining about how hot it was, and how much I wanted to go back home to California. On this trip, though, I wanted to stay on the island forever. I still do, even though I'm not there anymore. During that week, I was so grateful to be given another chance to cherish the land, my culture, and my people, with their unconditional love and overflowing hospitality for me and my colleagues. While in each of those classrooms on each campus, something inside of me was changing as I witnessed my own people step into their voices and tell their stories for the first time in their lives. That was the case for all of the students I worked with that week. Every teacher I met said: "that was the first time I ever heard them open up like that." I struggle a lot with owning all of my Samoan identity because of the disconnect I feel at times from being born in the United States, but I felt so at peace and at home during that week on island. It was the first time where I felt the most confident in my ability to lead a group in a writing workshop because this group of people are the ones who are most important in my life: they're my community. I come from them, and I depend on them the way our culture depends on them to keep our legacy alive. I've never felt so proud to be both Samoan and a writer. It meant everything to me to be able to share something as important as writing with my people, because both are the reasons why I'm still here and why I know who I am.

(FC): In your poem “Meauli,” you say, “There is no translation for anti-blackness in a lot of our languages, but it doesn’t mean we haven’t been nurturing it in our language.” What do you want to nurture in your language?

(TS): I want my language to nurture things like patience, forgiveness, genuine empathy, and growth. These are things that were incredibly hard for me to come by when I was growing up. Things I didn't have permission for when I was younger. I want a kind language, one that angles towards hope and doesn't falter when a better way of saying something is close but unreachable in the moment, for whatever reason. I want my language to hold people accountable for how they hurt others, while also knowing how to learn from the mistakes it makes when it causes pain. I guess I want my language to nurture what I've always wanted nurtured in me. I think it's easy to be reactive with language, and go off the rails with whatever emotion we feel is biggest in our body at the moment, without really teasing out what we actually mean to communicate. I want my language to nurture the hard. Not the easy. I want it to re-imagine what is possible when language has only the capacity to heal, and not be a weapon all of the time.

(FC): What do you think is your role in the fight?

(TS): I'm somewhere either in the middle of the pack, trying to make sure everyone is well nourished and has what they need to journey on, or I'm in the very back, walking alongside the slowest, engaging with them in dialogue and actively listening to their every word as we move, and not worrying about being the last ones left. I'm a people person. A "South" in all of those 4 Directions Working Styles group activities (they're the ones who care about the well-being of the people involved and whose strengths lie in being compassionate and group-oriented, even to a fault). I can't imagine a better world than this one that doesn't free us all. I see myself committed, even now, to dedicating my life to understanding what it takes for us to get closer to that freedom. Even if we never reach it in my lifetime, but we reach it nonetheless.

(FC): Can you envision an APIA space that is truly inclusive of Pacific Islander folks? Is such a space even possible (or necessary)?

(TS): I think my Pacific Islander community and I, to a large degree, are moving into a place in our understanding of our identity where we are no longer waiting for permission or asking to be accepted into something that wasn't necessarily made with us in mind (i.e. the "APIA" community). For me, it comes down to: do I want to spend my energy and time teaching non-PI members of the APIA community about the PI community, or do I want to spend my energy and time with my PI community, learning how to be understood and seen on our own terms? For all that we are? There was a time in which we Pacific Islanders believed it was absolutely necessary to be a part of the APIA umbrella because we deemed our smallness (in numbers, in resources, in collective power, etc.) as being a deterrent or an obstacle in our way towards self-actualization and acceptance, but in reality, there is power in all that we are as a people. There's power in us realizing that not only do we come from small islands in the Pacific: we are the Pacific. A whole damn body of water, and the largest body of water this world has. "Inclusivity" is fine, and at times, necessary. But I see a world for me and my Pacific Islander people where we don't have to keep coming from the margins of anything, yearning to be in the center. I see a world in which we are what everything else orbits around. Where we're seen, nurtured, accounted for, and never left behind ever again. 

(FC): What’s the last thing you read or saw that gave you hope?

(TS): Before he died this past January, my grandpa kept a daily journal every year, and wrote in it every single day since 1994. He has 13 red journals, mostly written in Samoan, but some written in English. I read a passage he wrote last year when he thought he was having a heart attack or stroke. You could see where his hand started to shake in writing that passage, as he was describing, on paper, the pain he was experiencing in his chest. I read how he called out for my Uncle for help. The last part of that passage was him accepting this fate and preparing himself to enter God's Kingdom. Although I grew up in a very religious household, my faith in God and in religion was nothing like my grandpa's. He was the most devout Christian I knew, and reading that passage of his brought me to a really scared and sad place, but it also reminded me of how unwavering my grandpa's faith is in his God. And how he was anything but scared that day. I read that and was reminded that I come from the same courageous lineage as this man. That I can also have a faith in something that is as unwavering as my grandpa's faith. That when it's my time to leave here, I hope to have my writings in a place where my future generations of my family can find them as well, and know exactly what to make of them when they read through it all. 

* * *

Additional Links

Terisa’s poems appear in the portfolio of Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2018 featured poets in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine.

“Layers,” the poem Terisa performed at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

Terisa’s poem “Atlas” in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine

Huffington Post feature on Terisa and Carrie Rudzinski’s poem “Women”

Terisa poem “The Day After American Samoa Is Under Water” (The Quarry)

* * *

Image of Franny Choi smiling to the right of the camera. She wears an abstract, floral print dress in shades of pink, yellow, turquoise and black. She wears a lilac shade of lipstick and softly cat-eyed framed glasses. She has long hair that is dark gold hear her scalp and a very light blonde at the ends.Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) and the forthcoming Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019), as well as a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She has received awards and fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the Helen Zell Writers Program. She is a Kundiman fellow, Senior News Editor at Hyphen   Magazine, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark NoiseCollective. She was a member of the curatorial committee for the 2018 Split This Rock Festival. Photo by Eileen Meny.

No comments: