William Evans is a writer from Columbus, Ohio, the founder of the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam (September 2008), and a Callaloo Fellow. In addition to being the editor-in-chief of Blacknerdproblems.com, William has published three collections of poetry with his latest, Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair, on Button Poetry. His work can be found online in or forthcoming from Winter Tangerine, Muzzle Magazine, the Offing, Union Station Magazine, and other online publications.
Shannon Brady: You have a strong slam poetry presence. You founded the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam, have made it onto national teams, and have had National Slam finals appearances. How did you begin writing slam pieces? Is there a difference in your process when writing pieces that are written toward a live reading versus those that are written for the page and a book reading?
William Evans: When I began writing, I was definitely writing with the intent to perform, but not necessarily to slam. I was pretty oblivious to what slam was, even after I had been performing at my preferred open mic for a couple of months. Naturally, though, the competitive person that I was (having played sports all my life), slam was a natural fit for me now that I had this newfound passion for performing. But I never angled myself towards writing for slam, though I think I edited for slam. I want to be clear on the difference. I could discern that I could structure a line around clarity or digestion to a live crowd in the editing process, but I always wanted to maintain that the content of the poem wasn’t determined by an audience scoring rubric.
I don’t think I’ve changed my writing to better accommodate the page as much as I hope I’ve become a better writer, period. I truly believe that developing the tools of making you a more effective writer is a way of physically building the thing you are actually trying to say. I think that’s a relentless and unending journey, but hopefully one I continue to progress.
SB: You mention The Black Panther and use other pop cultural references in your poems, and you also started the website Black Nerd Problems. How did that begin, and how has it evolved—both in your own work and as the moderator of a larger forum?
WE: Black Nerd Problems began in May 2014 after my co-founder Omar Holmon and myself came up with a vision to house a lot of our pop culture and nerd commentary in one spot. We felt that the content we digested and the way it was covered lacked our perspective. So we added ours. I think for myself and for the community that we’ve built with Black Nerd Problems, all of it pushes forward the idea that there was not only an audience for the things we had to say, but a yearning for that perspective as well. I’m not sure what we expected, but the response was a validation that we were both welcomed and necessary in these spaces that don’t always make room for us. That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.
SB: Your title, Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair, and your cover—an illustration of a small, black girl, one of her pigtails braided and neat, the other not, with a crooked part—set me up to expect a conflicted and lighthearted exploration of parenthood. Yet that was only the tip of what you explore. What led you to choose your title piece and cover? How do you describe this collection?
WE: When I wrote the title piece (probably about half way through the process), I knew it was going to be the title of the book. It was my closest attempt at surmising my insecurities and outright fear of being father and the implications of what my unpreparedness could bring. I don’t think it’s an unique feeling in parenthood, but for me it’s also colored in my journey through masculinity and maturation. And I knew that if I was going to write a book about my experiences in the present as a father, then I needed to show my work and demonstrate the events that delivered me here. I definitely wanted readers to see the tension of my adolescence, especially in how my experiences with intimacy were either pathways or challenges for me in becoming a father. I think something I learned early on is that to write about these experiences, such as raising a daughter or trying damn hard to be a good husband/partner, meant I couldn’t be the hero of these stories, because I’m not. I’m really just a dude trying to make sure the folks in my life know how they impact me and have saved me, and I wanted the poems to reflect that.
As for the cover, that was the easiest part of this whole process. Once I knew the title, I knew that I wanted Keturah Bobo, an artist I am lucky to share a city with, to draw the cover. She has done so much profound work on representation and portrayals of black girls and women, that she was my first choice. I am beyond honored that she agreed to do it.
SB: In your poem “Auribus Teneo Lupum,” which is about your daughter being the minority in a private school, it seemed that there was a certain freedom to talk back on the page where you were not able to speak publicly. The title is Latin for “I grasp the wolf by the ears” (I had to Google it), signifying a situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This sense of ambivalence runs throughout your work, along with a leitmotif of fear, violence, and death. As a white woman, I don’t experience that level of fear or risk of harm, but I see it in your work and in our society. For example, people were just arrested in Starbucks for being black. It’s also evident in the unending shootings of young black men. What do you think can be done against institutionalized racism on a poetry level? Or in other words, how can poetry be used to raise awareness about institutionalized racism?
WE: So many folks far smarter than I am have tried to unravel the placement of art in social justice and its real world impact. What I can say is that the most powerful tool in my arsenal is reminding people that I’m still here. That I didn’t fade into the shadows of someone’s biased fear. That I didn’t blink myself awake in some other plane where everything is better. I write to keep the lights on, in the sense that I’m always visible to the folks that would feel more comfortable forgetting I was there. My wife and I both graduated from a huge Predominantly White Institution. We both work in corporate-like environments, both of us with responsibilities of managing other people. I think we are both very determined to show that this game, one that definitely was not designed for us—who occupy not only predominantly white spaces, but gatekeeper institutions—can be played in the way we see fit and on our own terms. Vievee Francis has this amazing term, which is Radical Normativity. It essentially means, in this context, that I try to write about things that seem like typical day-in-the-life events, except they’re not typical because I am black and visible in a hostile landscape. Going for a run around your neighborhood sounds typical unless people feel you are running for nefarious reasons. Dropping your daughter off at school is about as routine as it gets, unless you’re worried about the relatability of the teachers to your young black daughter’s experiences. So that’s what I try to show.
I have a video of a poem called “Bathroom Etiquette” that begins as a funny and ridiculous interaction I had with a coworker about some of the weird things going on with maintenance at our employer. But the poem turns much more serious in how I interact with things in comparison to my white co-worker. A number of people have commented, “Oh, I wish the poem just stayed funny,” or “why does race have to come into it?” And that’s my point. White supremacy and its legacy are not gentle nudges when you have the time. It interrupts the narrative. It reshapes the story already in progress. That’s what I hope to accomplish in my writing, that these things that pull me away from bliss are ever present.
SE: I chose a few of your poems to present to some of my high school students. Your language, images, and emotional expression helped them engage. How are your poems being used to teach in your community?
WE: I think my proclivity towards being a storyteller and a visual storyteller are things I hear most often. I’m a big fan of efficiency in my writing, when I can afford to be. So I’m obsessed with letting the devices I have at play do multiple things to earn their keep. And it’s more interesting to me that way. I don’t want to tell you what someone said that left an impact on me, I want you see what I felt immediately after. I want to be shown how human emotions mirror the most mechanical or gentle things we interact with, so I try to bend towards those types of irony. My hope is that readers are generous enough with me to indulge my story and see how it relates to them.
SB: With a full-time job, a young family, a website to moderate, and other projects, when do you find time to write? How has your writing life changed over time? Do you have any suggestions for readers struggling with finding time and space to write?
WE: My most honest answer to that is that I don’t sleep a whole lot. But in all seriousness, I’m incredible at (read: in the terrible habit of) multi-tasking. I find a lot of ways to find overlap in a lot of my writing, but more than anything, you have to commit. Committing doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be writing for two hours every night no matter what (though some do, and if you can, you should). But really it means you have a focus when you move into those spaces of being productive. If I say, Well, I’ll go work on the site for two hours, I’m going to end up reading gaming articles for 90 minutes and about 3 minutes playing on my phone. So being task-oriented helps me more than anything. Have a goal, move into that space, work towards that goal. I do this for writing poems as well. I usually have 10-12 poem ideas bouncing around in my head at a time. Some of them are dormant, some are pounding at the walls to be formed. So I know that when I carve out that time to write, I’m making progress on one of those. The second part of that matters, progress. Producing one poem out of the dozen ideas I might have had sounds like failure on the surface, but it might be zero if I didn’t make time for it. So it all counts, every time.
SB: Thank you so much for your generous responses!
Great piece! What an insightful set of questions; WE’s responses expose the complexities of Black life in 21st Century (race-laden) America.