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Atlanta slam poet Theresa Davis refuses to separate activism from art

Robin Kemp

Caption: Atlanta slam poet Theresa Davis has been recognized nationally for her work as she continues to activism and art. (Photo by Danielle Boise)

International slam champion, teacher, and rock star poet Theresa Davis is on the road. Well-respected and well loved in Atlanta and in the larger poetry world, Davis taught at Horizons School for 23 years while cultivating her art. She was ranked the eighth female poet in the world by the Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2009. Then, in 2011, she won the title of Woman of the World Poetry Slam Champion after three days of tough competition. In 2012, She won the Emerging Artist Award, held the McEver Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech and also participated in the TEDEX talks for Georgia Tech. She released her first published work of poetry, “After This We Go Dark,” in 2013.

What’s your schedule like these days?

I was touring with Rising Appalachia most of last year. I’m also on target with poet Shyla Hardwick and the Huemyn tour that we do—H-U-E-M-Y-N—doing poetry performances around social issues and queerness—being queer and being happy about it. We did a big show at Colorado State University last year and it was awesome.

Still pleased with ‘After This We Go Dark?’ —your first published book of poetry? Any new projects in the works?

It’s still my first baby. People are still buying it. When it became an American Library Association honoree, I could go in the library and just know that my work will be here when I’m gone. I’m working on my new manuscript, “Drowned: A Mermaid’s Manifesto.” I’m also working on a novel and a play. So I’ve got a lot of targets for myself. Hopefully they will all be as successful as “After This We Go Dark” has been for me.

Tell us about ‘The Three-Minute Activist.’

“The Three-Minute Activist” was a project of the Roswell Slam—they used to call it Slammin’ in the Suburbs. (Director/filmmaker) Michael Harper said, “I really want to have these conversations with these artists about why they do what they do.” It’s a slam documentary about how politics and activism shows up in our work. I think they’re hoping to get it on Netflix.

Why do some artists want to separate poetry from politics?

Because they don’t want to have the conversation. I don’t think that people really understand what it means to be political and what that looks like. If you’re doing poems about child trafficking, that’s political. And if you can’t see that depth in your work, I think you have to have a conversation with yourself about why you do what you do.

What are your thoughts on the ‘religious freedom’ bills?

In 2015, it’s just ridiculous that we’re still dealing with this type of legislation and these types of laws that they want to pass. To me, it’s just above putting signs back up for “Colored” fountains and “Whites Only”—it’s just a different way of doing the same thing. I feel like, just as a person, being attacked in all the parts of me—as a black woman, as a black person, as a queer woman—it’s just all constantly under attack.

There’s a mean-spiritedness to it, like the grown-up playground bully.

Yeah. We have a system that’s built on being bullied. Even when I work with these kids, the things that they say when they tease each other—this stuff is learned. We live in a world where it’s a daily thing—who can we pick on today, and get other folks to jump in on it? Social media ups it to a whole new level.

And that rhetoric has real-world consequences.

I did a show in Nebraska, of all places, in January, in a school assembly, and had that moment of watching the kids come in. You could see the ones who were picked on and bullied. You could see it in their body language. And I could see the queer ones. And that’s what changed my whole set. I was worried a little bit about was the school gonna snatch me off the stage. But I could see it. So I addressed it. I talked about my queerness, I talked about feeling “other” and not feeling supported. Then one kid asked, “What do you do when you have one parent that hates you for who you are, and then another one that pretends it’s not real?” And I was like, “Well, you’re at school more than you’re at home during the week. And these teachers are here to support you. That is what their job is.” I said, “Am I right, teachers?” And I called all of them out. (Laughs) So that in itself was good because I felt like they needed to connect with somebody.

Being able to offer that support is one of the great privileges of being a teaching artist.

That’s one of the things I do love about it. For instance, Missouri State University [at a recent tour stop] they want to have those hard conversations about race, about sexuality. I’m basically gonna come in and kick the door down so they can have these conversations. I think part of what’s happening, with all the legislation that’s going around, with all the policing other people’s bodies or other people’s choices, creates that disconnect. And I think art is how we can reconnect, how we find our humanity. So every time I go into one of these things, I try to create a space for conversation to happen. Hopefully it happens even after I’m gone.

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