For National Youth Poet Laureate From Chicago, Literacy Is Activism
19-year-old Bronzeville native Patricia Frazier was recently named the National Youth Poet Laureate. She’s the first Chicagoan to earn that honor.
How did she feel when she won? “I was in shambles,” Frazier said.
In this interview with Morning Shift’s Jenn White, Frazier opens up about how growing up in a home that no longer exists shaped her worldview, her activism and her drive to create poetry that explores the idea of “home” and the power it has in our lives.
Her forthcoming book Graphite is an ode to her recently-passed grandmother and a meditation on loss and rebirth. It will be published in September. Scroll down to read a poem from the collection.
On growing up in Bronzeville and starting to write
Jenn White: You grew up in Bronzeville. Talk about your neighborhood and how it influences your poetry.
Patricia Frazier: I actually grew up in the Ida B. Wells apartment homes, moved out when I was nine, that was around the time when the buildings were torn down....I write a lot about Bronzeville just because I’m trying to remember some of my experiences, especially being a homebody and also being a product of the news, and being a product of seeing your neighborhood’s stories told to you, and then being afraid of experiencing that, and kind of seeing once it’s too late that those stories weren’t true.
On literacy as activism
White: You’re active in your community. You have a lot of passion around social justice issues and literacy. Talk about that.
Frazier: Literacy is one of the most radical forms of activism there can be. I work with this group called Assata’s Daughters in Washington Park. We campaign around a bunch of stuff. We were kind of the vanguard of the #ByeAnita campaign, which got Anita Alvarez out of office for the cover-up of the shooting and killing of Laquan MacDonald. Right now, we’re working on this campaign called #NoCopAcademy, which is protesting the $95 million cop academy that Rahm Emanuel wants to build on the West Side. And I think that a lot of my writing is inspired by my activism. Like, how can I make more visceral the injustices that are going on in my neighborhoods or how can I make more celebrated the joy that comes from communities that usually have a harsh light shed on them.
White: And how does literacy intersect with all of that work?
Frazier: I think that people need to know how to tell a story. Just like I was saying, I didn’t go outside when I lived in the projects just because I was afraid of what was being told to me about myself, right. So I think, one, we need to stop telling people that their story needs to be told in a specific way. You don’t have to write like Shakespeare. You don’t to write like Mark Twain...I think that especially black kids and brown kids who have been in schools reading people who don’t look like them, reading stories they don’t relate to, need people to tell them: “Just the way you talk is your poem. And that is enough.”
On her forthcoming poetry collection Graphite
White: You have a book coming out in September called Graphite. Tell us about it.
Frazier: Graphite is largely inspired by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and it is an ode, a big book of ode poems, to mostly my grandmother who passed away a couple months ago. But just kind of situating her in the middle of “home” and figuring out in what ways does “home,” especially a home that has been physically demolished, what ways can “home” exist through you and what ways can you rebirth “home” and redefine the ideologies that you received from “home,” right. So, it’s a lot of grappling with loss, but it’s also not really that sad. It’s more so, like I said, celebrating the parts of my neighborhood that don’t get celebrated in an everyday setting.
White: How does “home” exist in you?
Frazier: I think definitely in my presentation, especially of my blackness. For a lot of my childhood I was ridiculed for the way I speak and being assumed to want to be white and want to be other....I didn’t imagine my blackness to exist the way it did. So, now I’m just in this place where I’m thinking about, one, how stories can be multifaceted....Even though I am a black woman, I can still be weird, and I can still be goth, and I can still be all these things that we’re told we can’t be....Like, “Hey, I’m still pretty ghetto, still pretty loud, still pretty project, but I’m also all these other things.”
Her poem: “What to do When The Wells is Turned into a Facebook Group”
go to church and pray, thank The Lord
for finally getting rid of the police
cameras. log into your childhood home
and be grateful for thick walls.
now you can argue in the privacy of a DM.
now you can post on the block and not
watch your back. now shorty who said
it was poppin next time she see you gotta
send a friend request. ain’t this the life?
a play date in the comfort of your bedroom.
no more waiting on the front porch
of purgatory. daddy always shows up
when you type his name. a vigil
is just comments under a digitized obituary.
we are still dying but in better places.
shit, if I knew this was the price I had to pay
for permanence, I would’ve stopped going
outside a long time ago. who needs liberation
when your prison is comfortable?
GUEST: Patricia Frazier, National Youth Poet Laureate
LEARN MORE: Meet Chicago’s First National Youth Poet Laureate (Chicago Magazine 5/22/18)
Patricia Frazier Named Chicago's First National Youth Poet Laureate (Poetry Foundation 5/23/18)