Gender, Social Justice, Interviews

Speaking out against sexual violence through poetry: An interview with Stephanie Lane Sutton

If you put it down in words and confront it, you will feel brave and you will transform.

Stephanie Lane Sutton is a Midwestern poet, performer, and interactive media artist. Currently, she is a Michener Fellow in the University of Miami’s Creative Writing MFA Program. Previously, she lived in Chicago, where she was a teaching artist with After School Matters and a co-facilitator for Surviving the Mic, a workshop and reading series for survivors of trauma. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Day One,  Tinderbox Poetry, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Dream Pop Press, and littletell journal. She is a co-founding editor of |tap| lit mag. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and her personal blog. 

Slammer

after Jan Beatty

this is for the hecklers/my stage time soiled with their catcall of approval/what did I expect being friends with male poets/this is what happens when you write good poems/for the man who asked my permission to stay silent/because it made him feel safer/because it wasn’t his rape in the poem he’d written/& for the man who took the poem about rapists personally/it’s ironic you feel victimized/it’s ironic you said it’s my fault/because there are men who show up/& call that organizing/& feel fine taking credit for work done by a woman/this poem is a gravesite/get yourself a shovel/here’s one for my former mentor/the one who fucks his students as soon as they’re 18/he said they’re old enough now/did you count down the minutes until midnight on their birthdays/& for the one who didn’t wait, with or without her permission/with or without sincerely trying to teach her anything in the first place/& for everyone who said I should be grateful for male approval/& the women who are grateful for male approval/as our tongues got minced or led to the slaughter/as we were shot by the man on the other side of the door we knocked on when we had nowhere else to turn for help/& our unconscious bodies were raped into a party trick/& laughter slammed us against the lockers every day/the only ones who showed up were the cameras/& all the histories we’d written got voted out of the cannon by a panel of men/yet our arms stay in the booth selling merchandise/yet our legs stay in case we’re asked to stand & be recognized/since whether or not you’re listening you won’t have to live it/this poem is your tombstone/get yourself a chisel.

The Tempest: When did you realize that poetry was your passion; was there a moment when you just knew that this was a part of you calling?

Um, no (laughs). I don’t think there was one moment when I knew I was going to be a poet, it kind of just happened for me and I think that a lot of people who are poets have this experience where they’re interested in other things and then they start writing poems maybe in a high school English class or in college or just because they see someone else doing it and want to give it a try. I started writing poetry in my diary when I was in middle school, really emo, angsty stuff, and I just kind of kept doing it and then I ended up going to college and doing it more. I think that poetry has always been really challenging for me. There are always ways to challenge yourself in a poem, there’s always a more succinct way of describing something, and that’s the thing that kept me writing. And now I just am a poet, yeah it just kind of happened over time. I just like to think I couldn’t have done anything else, maybe I was just meant to be a poet.

The Tempest: Can you please give us some background on your poem, Slammer?

Yeah, so Slammer is a hard poem for me to talk about, it’s not a happy poem but a lot of the poems I write are not happy. But when I was in my early twenties, I was sexually assaulted and I ended up turning to slam poetry to cope with that. I was living in Chicago and slam poetry started out there and it was just such a huge, vibrant community so I found my way to the slam in the youth community and I kind of grew up in it. Then, as I got older I became one of the adults on the scene, I started teaching younger poets and talking to other women on the scene and I started to learn how rampant sexual assault is in the poetry slam community and not only that I just started to have my own experiences with misogyny with things that made me feel traumatized in a way that reminded me of my own assault. So I ended up writing this poem, as I was inspired by Shooter by Jan Beatty. What I love about that poem is that she takes the violence that she’s experienced at the hands of men and makes it into a metaphor. I wanted to write in a way like that so I wrote about all the things I had experienced in the slam community and that other people had told me they experienced that had made them feel so powerless. I wanted to sort of call that out and metaphorically dig it a grave and bury it. So that’s where the poem came from. It was a poem that I had to write; I don’t think that I could have kept being a poet if I didn’t put that experience into words. 

It's especially hard if you're a woman or you’re queer or person of color, because there’s always these boxes that you're being put into anyway. Click To Tweet

The Tempest: What has been the most challenging part of being a poet?

A part of me feels like everything is hard about poetry. and at the same time, everything about poetry brings me so much joy. There’s no money in poetry really. You can find a way to teach poetry or you might get paid for a reading, maybe there are other ways to make money that I just don’t know about. You really have to be in it because you love it. For me personally, the most challenging thing has been finding my authentic voice, because when you do poetry slam competitions, there’s a lot of pressure to write poems in a certain way which will get you to win. I’m in a creative writing program MFA right now and in academia, there’s a different kind of pressure that I’m seeing now. Because sometimes my professors want me to change a poem completely and write it in a different way and I think that’s just something you might experience in whatever context your writing is that people want you to be more like them or what they think you should be and you have to learn to take feedback but then to also learn how to push back against that.

The most challenging thing for me has been finding my authentic voice. Click To Tweet

I feel it’s especially hard if you’re a woman or you’re queer or person of color because there are always these boxes that you’re being put into anyway. I feel like I am constantly pushing back in all these different ways but in the end, the purpose of that is to find who I am in a way, how I express myself and how I think. It’s difficult but it’s very rewarding and I guess that’s the challenge that drives me forward. There’s no formula for writing a poem, there are no rules. I think that’s part of the thing that makes poetry so valuable. It’s what makes writing poems hard but also what makes poetry matter so much.

The Tempest: Can you give some words of advice to anyone who is thinking about trying poetry, and yet has some fears holding them back?

I don’t think being afraid is a bad thing; I feel afraid all the time that at the same time if you are afraid of something you can also confront it, and that feels very brave. Feeling brave is the best feeling and that’s kind of what you have to strive for. I think if you’re afraid to write poetry, start there. Write a poem on why you’re afraid, or write 10 poems on why you’re afraid! I really believe that writing is transformative and if you put it down in words and confront it, you will feel brave and will transform. You’re going to find inner strength and that’s a magical thing that poems can do. Embrace the fear and move forward.

If you are afraid of something you can also confront it, and that feels very brave. Click To Tweet

The Tempest: What do you hope readers take away after reading your work?

I think the most important thing for me right now is for other people who are sexual assault survivors or been through abuse to know they are not alone. I think Slammer might have been the first poem I wrote that was so direct about rape-culture, and right now that’s a lot of what I write and just stories about our culture and things that have happened throughout history and I just want people to not feel alone. And I think that if you’re not a sexual assault survivor or someone living with trauma, and you read my poetry, I want to offer a different perspective on what a poem can be and what a poem can do, whether that’s in form or content. I want anyone who reads my poem to feel that poetry isn’t dead and that it still matters and can make a difference! And if I ever write something which inspires others to write poetry like that that would be my marker for success.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Yasmin Irfani

Yasmin Irfani

Yasmin Irfani is a graduate student at Cal State Northridge, pursuing a Masters in College Counseling & Student Services. She received her BA in psychology from UC Santa Barbara in 2015. Yasmin loves to read, write, travel, and play with animals! She’s lived in California, Pakistan, and New York for different periods in her life and loves meeting new people. She is currently a Summer Editorial Fellow at the Tempest and loves connecting with others through writing.

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