Mitchell L.H. Douglas recently spoke with Indianapolis native Sylvia Thomas, a multi-disciplinary artist whose creative pursuits often cross paths with her activism. In this interview, Thomas shares the work that fulfills her and what’s on the horizon for her writing.
How many different disciplines do you work in? What does each do for you personally/spiritually?
As a poet who performs, I work with a few artistic disciplines. Writing is the obvious one, but I also sing, and create music with music software. I write most of my poems melodically. I will be singing somewhere in the world whether it is an airport, the sidewalk, or my bedroom and just strand words together that may survive on the page. Singing my poems is so important for my work in live performances. I want to feel the poem in my chest and make it mean something and make others feel it too when they hear it or read it.
If I could describe the feeling when I write and perform, I would say it feels like disclosing a secret to your friend. I feel a rush of emotion and trust with the world when I get something off my chest. To share my work is sacred, saving and soulful.
In terms of activism, what projects occupy most of your time? How did you, an Indy resident, decide where you would get involved and who needed your help?
In my full-time work as an Education and Outreach Manager at Step-Up Inc., I provide comprehensive education around sexual health and harm reduction. I am founder and a co-chair of our transgender pride event in Indianapolis, TRANSGLAM, through our local pride organization, Indy Pride. When I’m not working on those projects, I am writing, singing and performing my poetry anywhere I am called to.
As far as deciding where I would get involved, I never made a decision. I was in college studying history when I started my poetry career. I remembered wanting to consume more queer and transgender histories based in Indiana but was frustrated to find such little recorded on my community. So, I went to several open mics, VOCAB, That Peace, and wherever they would pop up. I was vulnerable enough to share my pieces about being queer, transgender, and my desire for stories like mine to exist in history. And people just called me an activist.
When did you know your writing was going to be intertwined with your activism?
I went from performing at open mics with other poets to doing conferences and rallies with community organizers and politicians. In Indianapolis, many marginalized artists float between both sectors of culture because, as Audre Lorde said, “the personal is political.” I noticed the shift when the audience shifted from other artists to people fighting and mobilizing for legislative equality. My words were affirming the power of other activists who were making Indiana a safe place for people like me. I realized my words were no longer for snaps and critique, but I had something to share and be felt amongst Hoosiers.
What does your work as an activist do for you? How do the people you help respond?
Many Hoosiers carry a lot of shame. This shame from religious upbringings, toxic masculinity, technology with ultimate access to information, or whatever cultural factors that shape us, make us believe that truths are worth more than facts. So much harmful legislation surrounding the transgender community has passed not because of facts, but because of the storytelling and storyselling of truths people believe. When I have testified at the Indiana Statehouse, I watch the people who have authored these harmful bills sit without questioning me or anyone from my community. They only wish to succeed in their mission. They do not want to own any of their shame around not knowing our truths or facts.
Questions are the only thing that will save us. Questions are quests for information and in my work as an artist/activist, I only wish to unlearn the world and learn it over again. I have helped people understand that transgender people like me are not the problem. People have told me I was the first transgender person they met when they saw me on a stage, and I have seen many people confront their guilt around their preconceived notions about transgender people. I am glad I have been able to help people air out their dirty laundry because I believe everyone can have beautiful things to wear in their truth that lets go of their shame and wants to learn more about the world.
Your poem “Back to the Closet” is particularly timely now with lines like “I thought about drag queens/Demanding democracy” and “I thought about Trans women/As our death toll rises like ticks and tocks/we take our time to tell our truth.” What do you believe is your role as an artist in these times?
I believe my role as an artist in these times is to keep creating whatever I want to create. That poem, as much as I love it, came from an artistic place I used to operate in that only prioritized my activism. Now, more than ever, I just need to create pieces that are for me and represent the truth that helps me live another day. Just making work to make sense of it all. Also, I believe it is my role to be in the audience and support other artists more than ever. There are only a few of us who can make this work their full-time job, and I know the hustle, so I try to be present as much as I can with our amazing community in Indiana.
Your poem “Anything with a Pulse” about the 2016 Pulse nightclub tragedy in Orlando is a moving tribute to the victims of one of the country’s deadliest mass shootings. Can you share the process of writing this poem and what you wanted to accomplish? Why are places like Pulse important to their patrons and community?
I knew I wanted to write about gay bars in an intimate way. I wrote that poem in the pandemic, when I had a lot of time to think and grieve. I like to process my grief with a lot of time. I have visited the memorial too. I mourned the place as an escape for many people like me. I was in a gay bar in Indianapolis when the mass shooting occurred in Orlando. Gay bars helped me understand my culture, meet my community, meet my chosen family and allow me to share my authenticity. They were one of my first homes away from home. Those places shouldn’t be taken away from anyone. I needed to write to honor that fear and hold our resiliency. Shoutout to Metro Indy for the memories and love over the years.
Your poem “Transgender” begins with the speaker’s profound realization “becoming/was never a moment/it was a life of standing/in the mirror a little bit/longer and thinking of the/details no one ever knows about.” What for you is the beauty and challenge of being a trans woman in Indianapolis, America and the world?
Being a transgender woman allows me to live more outside of my own body. I let my shame of being alive go a long time ago. I pay attention and admire the beauty around me more. The challenge is safety. I prioritize my safety wherever I go. I’ve had to fight for my life in more ways than one and I don’t want to do it again.
In terms of poetry and the public, what is needed most in Indianapolis right now? How do you want to address these issues?
Many people go to shows at large venues we’re all familiar with, but it is important to support smaller venues and independent artists such as Healer, White Rabbit Cabaret, State Street Pub, Almost Famous, etc. These kinds of places gave me my start and continue to support my work. We have to support performing artists too.
What is next for you in terms of life and poetry?
I just finished my next collection of poetry that comes out later this year. It’s about grief. I am working on an EP of poems and songs that I have performed live. I’ve been performing at more music shows, opening up for bands, and it feels so affirming to be taken seriously in the music scene in Indy. I’m excited to collaborate with some amazing producers and talents on making my next project come to life.
I hope I get to spend time with loved ones and just laugh with them. I’m thinking about creating a poetry show in Indy, there aren’t many in our city right now. But we will see.
Anything you want to add about the National Poetry Month and what this time means for you?
I hope for National Poetry Month, people go to a poetry show and support the poets in this city. I also hope people believe in their own words and start writing.
Sylvia Thomas is a Hoosier from Indianapolis. She has a degree in history from Indiana University. When she’s not working as an artist or in her community, she enjoys being a cinephile, keeping up with pop culture, listening to pop music, going to museums, walking, exploring cities and spending time with loved ones. She is a Libra (sun), Leo (rising), and Sagittarius (moon). While she has found success through her art, she is always looking for opportunities to bring kindness and find fulfilment. She loves travelling to New York, Chicago, and Copenhagen.