It’s a new day of a new year and to start things off for 2015, I figured I have a voice featured today of someone other than my own. It’s been a while since I last released an interview on here, so I thought it would be nice to do that again. As to the person who’s featured this time around, that honor goes to an incredible spoken word artist whom I’ve known since high school: Gretchen Carvajal.
Gretchen is more than just a fellow writer; she is someone whom I’ve always known for never hiding her voice, however that may be. She expresses her art and her stories through the means of being a writer, artist, emcee, and performer. She was born in the Philippines before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area when she was very young. She is currently a student in the First Wave program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has partaken in many spoken word competitions over the years- including the national youth competition, Brave New Voices, when she was 17- and was recently a participant in The Ill List; the signature poetry slam invitational in Modesto, California. She already has a chapbook under her belt called Daughter of the Sun and plans to write more books in the future to come. To learn more about her, be sure to check her out on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
LL: You and I go back quite a bit, so I already know how you got your start as a spoken word artist. However, since not everyone who’s reading this knows who you are, can you explain what first jump-started your interest in poetry?
GC: I remember watching my first slam video my sophomore year in high school. It was HBO’s “Brave New Voices” documentary and it was a segment on Joshua Bennett and his poem for his deaf sister. I just remembered being really captivated by how he captured people’s emotions with words. It was a very empowering realization for me, to realize that people will listen if you write something honest. From then on, I bought a ton of Def Poetry Jam DVDs, watched poets on YouTube, watched poets in the city and in Oakland, worked with Youth Speaks SF, and just kept honing my craft individually.
LL: You’ve been very active in poetry slams; so much as to where you took part in the national Brave New Voices competition the summer before your senior year of high school. Can you describe what it is like to be able to perform a poem before an audience?
GC: I love performing. I think letting other people experience your poetry is important because it’s a sharing of struggle, and it’s a process of empathy and understanding. I like performing for big audiences because the largeness of the crowd makes it less intimate, and actually less intimidating for me than smaller audiences where you can see everyone’s faces. I think performing and getting my name out is important for me because frankly, there aren’t enough AAPI women out there speaking about the complexities of their stories. Filipino-Americans are some of the most misunderstood people, and I feel like I have a responsibility to unravel that in my performances. In short, if I don’t speak these stories, who else will?
LL: Are there any spoken word artists- or just artists in general- that you look up to?
GC: I really try to support as many AAPI poets as I can, so I love Franny Choi, Rachel Rostad, Will Giles, Jason Bayani (who’s a total OG and he’s from the Fremont/Newark Area) and Hieu Minh Nguyen. Danez Smith who’s on fire right now in the poetry community, coached me for my first Collegiate invitational slam and his coaching really did wonders for my work. Artistically I love Kendrick Lamar, and Kara Walker and what they do to unravel the identity of blackness and its affect on the American landscape. I just love artists who are not afraid to say it’s about race, and unravel those stories and multilayer identities because I feel like White supremacist America has taken that complexity and depth away from POCs and we’re just tired of it.
LL: You are currently a junior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison as an art major. How has your college experience been for you so far and why did you decide to study art rather than English?
GC: Going to Wisconsin is like going to an alternate universe where most of the white people you encounter are drunk or ignorant. College has definitely opened my eyes and made me more aware of the institutions that marginalize people like me. It’s hard to make art that fights the barriers when you’re in a predominantly white institution, you get a lot of push back from white folks and even brown folks who don’t think shit’s about race or shit’s not as peaceful as it is. It’s only made me more resilient and convinced that the work that the POC’s in Madison do, whether they’re artists or activists, is important to the landscape of the university, and ultimately the country. I chose to study art because I feel like that’s where all of my interest is, like to study English alone would be selling myself short. I love making art, whether it’s performed, written, or illustrated, and my process in choosing art was the idea that honing my skills in visual art would be a great asset to the literary and performative work I already have. I still read a lot and intend on taking courses that focus on creative writing though, just because I feel like you can’t learn everything via poetry.
LL: Throughout the past year, you’ve started releasing chapbooks; the first one, Daughter of the Sun, was released December 2013. What made you decide to start writing chapbooks?
GC: Daughter of the Sun was birthed out of the desperation to help typhoon Haiyan victims in the Philippines, and the yearning to write these stories after I had been doing so much research on Fil-Am identity. I like self published works because it’s a lot more personal and a lot more fulfilling to create as a writer. I started reading people’s work through chapbooks you know? So I wanted to create my own and maybe spark an interest for someone else.
LL: I noticed how your second chapbook, Noche Buena, differs in the matters of not only it being just poetry, but you’ve also included short stories too. From your experience, how is it writing prose as opposed to poetry?
GC: Short stories are hard for me. I’m just gonna say that. When I wrote Daughter of the Sun, I had a lot of shorter poems in the book that I loved writing because it was so short and simple and to the point, as opposed to slam poems where you have to talk about a single thing for 3 minutes (which is about 500 words or so). So going from loving the short poems in Daughter of the Sun, to trying to write short stories, is nuts, but I’m doing a lot of research, reading a lot of short stories, and trying to see what angles I can tell these stories from. What I do love about short stories is the fact that most of them come from the narratives that my family tells. Most of the stories don’t take much work from me except for translation of the language, but other than that, it’s great because I’m just transcribing what my family says.
LL: Aside from content and the themes in your work, in what ways do your two chapbooks differ from each other, and in what ways are they similar?
GC: I’ve decided that Noche Buena will be the start of a trilogy of novels I’m writing on my family’s story. It will still include poems, but for the most part, I want it to be narrative based. Daughter of the Sun I think is some of my best work and some of my most inspired work, while Noche Buena will be a test of my skill as a writer and a storyteller. I feel like Daughter of the Sun was my process realizing the power and the magic to being a brown girl, and Noche Buena will give context to why that realization had to take place, it gives context on why that realization was drowned or lost for a while.
LL: How do you plan to go forward in the future to come, as far as your education and other endeavors go?
GC: I just want to give a spark to brown kids. I want to be able to write and make things that make them feel safe in their own skin, and make them want to love their own skin and identity. With my Spring Semester being full of printmaking courses, I wanted to use those skills to create more resources like books and prints for kids even younger than my usual demographic to realize that they are important. Post grad I want to move back to the Bay Area, work with non-profits and hopefully have enough money to print picture books and more works for kids and older brown folks to read and share. It’s to let them know that their stories are out there and acknowledged. I didn’t realize the power of my people until I got to college, and now I want to make more of myself for my people. Imagine what would happen if little kids knew the power of their people, what kind of revolution they would start.
Be sure to go buy the re-issue of Daughter of the Sun on browngirlpoems.bigcartel.com today!