Students snapped their fingers for Terisa Siagatonu’s riveting poems about race and gender relations Wednesday evening at Another Type of Groove’s (ATOG) Asian Pacific Islander themed open mic night.
From the Bay Area, Siagatonu is a queer Samoan poet who writes riveting word that speaks out for marginalized groups. Her work has been featured by CNN, NBC News, NPR, Huffington Post, The Guardian and Upworthy. She is a three-time member of the Da Poetry Lounge/Hollywood Slam team and she helped her team place second in the nation at the National Poetry Slam, according to her website.
The following is a Q&A with Siagatonu that has been edited for space and clarity:
MN: You’ve been recognized by Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, CNN, The Guardian, NBC News and NPR — how does it feel to be recognized by these well-read media organizations?
TS: It feels like an honor. There’s something about poetry that people are gravitating toward these days. It’s a small community but attraction to it has gained attention especially with social media. It’s cool to go about my day and see a post that says, “Hey I saw your poem on Buzzfeed!” — it’s always a good feeling because it feels like my story and experiences are getting the time they deserve.
MN: You mention that your story and experiences are getting the time they deserve. What kind of experiences do you talk about?
TS: I talk very much from a first-person narrative, being from a working class background and being a queer woman of color. These things are very much centered in my work and often times they’re not heard as often in society or in the classroom — and the reason I love this art form is that it gives a platform for people like me who have been marginalized and it brings issues into light and onto the stage.
MN: What kind of message are you addressing to people who can either relate to your experiences or to those who cannot?
TS: For those who can relate to me, spoken word poetry has given me and taught me (that) people need to see people like them being brave and courageous in public spaces.
People come up to me after a show and say, “Thank you for that poem. Thank you for what you said. I’ve been scared to talk about that with my family,” and that’s all the affirmation I need for why I do this.
For the people who can’t relate, one of the most powerful things that comes out of this is promoting dialogue where people should be pushed to challenge their comfort levels and have new learning experiences.
If you’re not talking to the poet or inquiring about something she said, you gotta ask yourself what you’re trying to get out of this experience. Remember, this is more than just art — this gives a voice to those who are voiceless. This is a way that people can challenge each other and grow. We’re trying to challenge each other … It’s not a means by which I am trying to say my lived experience is more important than yours, but yours is yours, and if what I said in my poetry sparks dialogue, then that’s great. I am always aware people will respect (my poetry) or have questions about it.
MN: What kind of questions do you get about your poetry?
TS: I get questions about politics around race, privilege and power. Generally, folks are grappling with their own sense of identity. A lot of white folks will come up to me about poems where I address race — they have genuine questions and I remind them that this is the point of the poem where I could be done saying it on stage but you’re welcome to approach me after we should be talking about it.
MN: What inspires you to write poetry?
TS: I am really drawn to this quote by Nina Simone: “The duty of artist is to reflect the times,” meaning it is our job as artists to be up-to-date in the world around us and put a spin and creativity on that. My inspiration comes from the current events going around in my community and the city, especially in height of police brutality, anti-black racism and gender-based violence. I’ve recently been inspired about my own culture and heritage. My grandpa isn’t getting any younger … I still don’t know the (native) language and I’m trying not to feel too much shame about it. So I said, OK, Terisa, you gotta do the research, spend time with grandpa and learn from him. Right now I’m grappling with how to retain my culture and learn from myself and preserve it. I’m inspired by my lived experience in every aspect of my identity.
MN: How has your upbringing influenced who you are today?
TS: Because I grew up in working class family, I am very aware. As a marginalized person, you’re hyperaware of the fucked up shit that goes on. That’s influenced who I am. I did a lot of journaling and diary writing growing up. I grew up in an environment that was rigid about young people speaking up and being heard.
Growing up poor and marginalized gave me a new set of glasses to look at the world and let me see where we are going wrong and why people are sick, hurt, traumatized … My vision on that is 20/20. It is hard not to take responsibility and that’s the response of knowledge — it’s hard to unlearn it and act like you don’t know what s going on. Luckily, I have my childhood to thank for that and my family, about respect and knowing where I come from and being aware of the world around me.
My education — I’m lucky to have gone to college and had a family to push me to go to college. It could’ve very well been me on that track and not doing well and not pursuing those goals. I had a lot of support despite oppressive situations I grew up, but those didn’t hinder me from fighting twice as hard.
MN: You mentioned you grew up in oppressive situations — what were they?
TS: We grew up in housing projects, but they don’t exist anymore because of gentrification. I still have family on brink of being gentrified but haven’t yet.
I’ve experienced living in a 14-bedroom apartment on very little and issues of class are things I’m sensitive about. I’ve become aware of the people who have money and watched how those people waste money. I’ve grown up without that financial aid.
Being a brown person, a brown girl, in the world isn’t easy and going to school at a predominantly white high school. I was tokenized for being this exotic brown girl … Sure it felt good at the time but it was at the expense of being exotified.
MN: How do your ideas for your poems come to you?
TS: I definitely bring a notebook with me everywhere; I usually have one in my bag if inspiration strikes. Moments where I want to write down lines and words and people that make me want to write inspire me. I’ll pull out my phone and write moments in bullets so I don’t forget. I’m always inspired, especially when I go to watch poetry like this. I’m also a teaching artist (poet mentor) for primarily high school youth. I help them edit their poems … That’s also inspiration and also a kick in the butt when the person is 16 and it’s like, “Wow, they’re hungry for this.”
MN: What was the first small idea you had that you didn’t realize would make a great poem?
TS: I was attending a lecture and the professor was doing a lecture on the island of Fiji and she showed us a picture of map and the map was centered on the Pacific Islands rather than entire world and she showed us the map — every map cuts pacific ocean in half — one is on the left and one is on the right and the Pacific Ocean is never intact. As soon as she said that, I wanted to write about it.
I was in Boston coming back to California, during my layover I started typing up my poem, and that poem spurred into a free write and I took it with me to Paris for the last UN conference for climate change and I even did a recording of the video in Paris. It’s probably my favorite poem I’ve written and it all came from a professor dropping knowledge about homelands being cut in half by maps. It’s one I love doing because it helped me grapple with what home means for someone who comes from an island nation and is so microscopic on a map that no one pays attention to it, but now that it’s a poem, it’s in peoples’ faces so they can’t ignore it.