A poetic conversation with Lydia Johnson and Manón Voice (Part I)

In honor of National Poetry Month, local poets Lydia Johnson and Manón Voice had a chat about the writing process, what poetry means to them and advice for writers looking to dive…

In honor of National Poetry Month, local poets Lydia Johnson and Manón Voice had a chat about the writing process, what poetry means to them and advice for writers looking to dive into the genre.

LJ: Okay, so my first question is going to start at what I think is the beginning. How and when did you begin writing poetry?

MV: I began writing poetry as a child. I was about seven or eight years old. And I’m thinking I was in second grade. So my earliest memory and contact with poetry was through the bookmobile that would come around. … I got on the bookmobile and picked out some books. And as a child, you’re just attracted to a book because of the cover, usually its colors and the artwork that appeals to you and your young sensibilities. But when I went home, I had a book of poetry. And when I opened it up… it was like a portal to a whole other world. … It felt like I was inducted into a whole other world that just blew me away. It was like an anthology and the anthology had all kinds of poets in it, but it was for young readers. And so one of the first poems that I remember was Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

I remember memorizing that as a child, “The Road Not Taken.” And I just thought, wow, this is delicious. And I fell in love with poetry. And after that, I started trying to imitate the work of other writers. And so even before I knew what the form was, what I was doing, writing in stanzas and enjambment, things like that. I was literally just paying attention and trying to copy and do what they were doing. So I would be like, “Oh okay, let me see if I can put my poem in the same form, but just like my own words.”

Unbeknownst to myself, teaching myself how to write through imitation really is how you start anything. So, it was kind of a private love affair, really, until I got into college. I had never seen poetry performed until I went to IU and the Black Student Union hosted an event and they had a spoken word poet named Verses from Detroit, Michigan. And he’s a part of like the Appalachia poets, Jamal… he’s done incredible work. But he was the first spoken word poet that I had heard. And I was like, “You can do this with poetry?” Up until then I thought it was all in books. I just thought it was this private esoteric thing that a few people on the planet knew about and loved. 

And then that event opened up a whole other world for me so that was how I fell in love with spoken word poetry. That was my transition into steadily becoming a spoken word performer. But I still didn’t think that I could do it. I was like, “I can’t. I wish. I could never do this.” After seeing Jamal I was blown away and I was undone. … So yeah, my love affair started very early, and it has stayed with me.

LJ: Your experience with poetry is so beautiful, and you were saying “a private love affair” and it sounds like such a lovely experience, you know? 

It’s so interesting that you remember your first interaction with poetry and then memorizing a poem. I mean, you’re writing them down and everything too, but memorizing a poem, that’s hard, right? Especially if you’ve never read poetry before. You’ve never written poetry before. But you knew at that moment, it was something that you needed to take from this piece of paper and bring into yourself.

MV: Absolutely. I like to convey it as closely as I can to a spiritual, mystical experience. I’m seven or eight years old, so my intellect is seven or eight. But whatever the Spirit knows, beyond us, it just connected like that, in that moment, and I knew “Oh, this is my world.” I was like, “This is where I belong.”

LJ: You also said that with hearing spoken word poetry, you were intrigued. It was amazing, it was wonderful, but you didn’t think you could do it. 

Now you are an accomplished poet, a spoken word artist among many other things, what had to happen for you to go from “I don’t know if I’m capable of doing this” to you doing it so well for so long in so many different avenues and events?

MV: Yeah, it’s all a surprise to me. I would have never imagined this. But a good friend of mine had an open mic after I graduated from college, and she was looking for Saturday night acts to just fill the space. And I still remember this was on 10th Street. It was called “All That Jazz.” And she said, “Manón, you should bring some of your poetry,” and I refused [at first]. But I remember getting up there and trying it and it’s funny because she had booked as a feature, Tasha Jones. She really opened the door for a lot of spoken word poets in this city as far as what she was doing at the time, in the early 2000s, in mid 2000s. So I just performed this poem I had worked on memorizing. And the crowd affirmed me, and I was like, “Okay!” and I just kept practicing, and that’s kind of like where you cut your teeth. 

And these open mic spaces give you the feedback and you are locked into the audience. There’s the exchange of energy and dynamism that comes from being in those types of spaces where you’re in this conversation with others, and they’re in this conversation with your work.  And so for years, I just did that. I did that over and over and over and over and let me tell you, I didn’t think I was that good. But it was literally just being persistent and being compelled by something inside of me that, that said, “You have to use your voice in this way.” 

People who are close to me know that I actually had a pretty bad stuttering problem that that really limited the ways that I would, or I thought that I could, use speech publicly. And so by doing this over and over, this was really helping me to overcome a deep insecurity and what felt like a deep impairment and disability that I had for so many years.

And so, poetry has helped me to find my voice in all kinds of ways. As my literal voice, but also my voice as far as my identity as a woman, as a Black woman. It has just made ways for me. And so I had to come into my voice very slowly, very slowly. It didn’t happen overnight. But doing it over and over and over, there was some point where it just literally became a part of me. It becomes a second language, you know? Or like they say, second nature. That’s how it felt. After like five years, I started to feel like “Oh, I’m in a groove now.” Like, I know…my own cadence, my own style. I know where I fit in this. And so that was a journey. And that was a process and that’s a process that is still ongoing. 

LJ: What advice would you give to people who might be reading their poetry for the first time at an open mic during National Poetry Month? You talked about repetition being something that helped you find your voice, find your cadence. Do you have any other tips that you could give?

MV: You know, I think you are your first believer. And you have to believe what you’re saying. You have to believe in your work. You have to believe in the message, you have to believe in the truth that you are telling. If you don’t believe it, others won’t. Always before I go to a crowd, it has to be something that I feel like is within me, something that I know, something that I’m sure about. And I would just spend time to literally practice in the mirror looking at myself saying something. … Just believe in yourself unequivocally. Especially when we are at open mics and we might have written something that is very new, and we recite it we feel like oh, “I didn’t get the feedback” or “I wish I could have done this differently.” The process of writing and performing a poem is something that is ongoing. It’s something that is dynamic. So each time that I get up and perform a piece, I feel like I do it different every single time. So that’s a relationship that we can have with our own work, is that we don’t have to feel like it’s static.

LJ: I’ve already said that you’re a poet, a spoken word artist, actor, filmmaker, hip hop emcee, educator, community builder. What inspires you to make a new piece and how do you know which medium it should be in?

MV: I feel like beneath all the modes of communication, being a filmmaker, being an actor, being a poet, being a hip hop emcee, I’m a storyteller. I think that’s the central hub that connects all those mediums. And I’m inspired if I feel like I have a story to tell, that compels me. If I find out a fact about something and I’m like, “Huh, that’s interesting,” I dig into that. … Or if I feel like that it’s a story that you can say is unsung, or it’s marginalized. Or a story that has been shelved, perhaps because it’s so far back in history, that the retelling of it has halted or become stagnant. I’m really interested in picking that up. And whether that’s in film or in poetry, I’m like, “How can I elevate this story?” “How can I reflect on this in a way that it draws out some new perspectives?” I’ve been really energized in the last like couple of years by needing to tell a story. I am a history lover. Particularly the history of people of the of the African diaspora. I’m always inspired to tell our stories.