In this episode we speak with decorated poet and visual artist, Rachel Eliza Griffiths. She is the author of four poetry collections, the creator of Poets on Poetry, and a Cave Canem fellow, among other honors. She also teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
Rachel Eliza talks about the critical role that reading has played in her development as a writer and speaks about creating in various disciplines; notably literature, photography and video. Her enlightening take on evolving as an artist and prioritizing time to read will have you racing to your journal!
We also ask Rachel Eliza about her experience with artist residencies and she details the inspiration behind her video work. Whether we’re discussing poetry or hit music videos, there is so much to unpack in this episode. Most importantly, we walk away with a priceless piece of advice that she shares from her journey of working on a novel: The Work of being an artist “is beautiful and necessary.”
As always, this episode features the following music: Aspire by Scott Holmes, and Purple Light by Blue Dot Sessions.
To learn more about Rachel Eliza visit: www.rachelelizagriffiths.com or follow her on IG: @rachelelizagriffiths.
To read “What Has Changed,” visit: https://thegeorgiareview.com/fall-2017/what-has-changed-essay-and-photographs/
To view P.O.P. (Poets on Poetry) visit: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/pop-poets-poetry
Listen to Episode 3 below or on the following podcast platforms:
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Enjoy the episode and remember to Create & Connect!
Art Is a Function of Your Evolution
So often we’re told to stick to one medium, but artists rarely imagine in a singular form. How do we traverse the creative space between written and visual art? And what role does reading play in good poetry? Rachel Eliza Griffiths speaks on this and much more.
Narrator: 00:00:00 Meraki to do something with soul, creativity or love. Welcome to Meraki Mentors, a podcast between women who create. We interview creatives from every field and around the globe to discuss art risk taking and what it means to live a creative life. Here's your host, Candace Howze.
Candace: 00:00:24 I stumbled upon Rachel Eliza Griffiths work a few years ago while researching multidisciplinary artists. I was looking for someone who works in media I'm most familiar with: literature, photography, and film. I was instantly taken by the careful emotionality of her work and fell in love all over again. After reading her stirring account of the 2017 women's march, which is an essay and photo collection titled "What Has Changed", printed in the Georgia review last fall. Rachel Eliza is especially interesting because she is both formally educated and self taught in her respective media and despite her many accolades, she is just as personable as your best friend from next door. Believe me, I was silently fangirling throughout this entire interview and once you hear this episode, I think you will too.
Candace: 00:01:17 Okay. Welcome back everyone to Meraki Mentors podcast. This is your host. I'm Candace Howze and I am overjoyed and so excited to introduce our guest today. We have the lovely and talented Rachel Eliza Griffiths, who is a renowned poet and visual artist. She's the author of five different poetry collections and she currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. So first and foremost, thank you so much for spending this time with us today.
Rachel Eliza: 00:01:53 Thank you so much for inviting me. Candace.
Candace: 00:01:57 Yes, I was so, um, and I always tell everyone whenever I invite a guest to the show, I always get a little nervous and I'm like, oh, they're probably not going to say yes. So I can't tell you how excited I was that you would be joining us.
Rachel Eliza: 00:02:11 Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm excited about what you're doing. So just to chat and get to talk to you seem like a good idea. So I'm glad to speak with you and to kind of connect with everybody who's listening.
Candace: 00:02:26 Absolutely. Um, and I will definitely say, I know I've obviously like kind of followed your work and read your poetry, um, for the past few years. I actually graduated from college in 2015, but I really became I think probably more aware, um, after I read your incredible essay in The Georgia Review last year, which for anyone out there, if you haven't read the Georgia Review, um, I definitely recommend subscribing or picking it up at your local library if possible. It's one my favorite literary journals and Rachel Eliza did a fantastic photo essay, um, as well as a written essay called What Has Changed about the women's march from last year. Um, so I know it's on the website, so definitely check that out. But yeah, I really got excited with just your work and the versatility of it at that point. Um, so definitely I know, yeah, it's very it's very great to be able to see artists, um, so many times we are multitalented in different ways, but to be that adept and that capable of creating emotional ties from one medium to the other. So I guess you can just start off by introducing kind of what different work you do and how you got started moving from that flow of writing as a poet to being a visual artist as well.
Rachel Eliza: 00:03:49 Okay, great. And thank you for asking me about it. Um, I, I am one of those people from a very young age. I just always was kind of creative, um, you know, from like painting on the wall when I wasn't supposed to, but to also just wanting to share stories and I loved being read to and loved books and kind of was like, you know, black girl nerd. Um, but as a child nothing was more thrilling to me than kind of like making things. And so, um, I don't really remember a time in my life where creativity and imagination wasn't part of how I approached the world, having a sense of wonder, um, for the natural world, but also just people and stories and where people come from or you know, why this thing is called this name or what this means. And then feelings too.
Rachel Eliza: 00:04:48 Like how to express and communicate my feelings has always been so important to me and like processing the world and my experiences. So, um, when I was younger I think I was probably more visual, but I was always also trying to write, um, and like I'd show someone like some scribble, scrabble and then tell them exactly, you know, the story for it, you know. Um, and then later as I got older, I continued to work visually. And then once I was, once I began reading, which was really early in my life, uh, I just fell in love with reading. Um, and I'm still madly, madly in love with reading. Um, I will just read anything and I'm open to all types of books. Um, no matter what, they may be a, I think, you know, recently and I'm saying like in the last 10 years, that's recently to me.
Rachel Eliza: 00:05:46 Um, I, you know, began to, when I moved to New York, I started to photograph. I'm self taught as a photographer. Um, I paint and draw and do installation stuff, but I always was writing. And so, um, recently there seems to be more interest in the kind of bridges between these different mediums of kind of, you know, the photo essay or the lyric essay and um, this is just wonderful for me because it allows me to kind of make all these bridges connect. Sometimes they connect and sometimes they don't. Um, but I mean, I, I have to say, I've always kind of just, you know, had visuals, even my writing is very, there's a lot of imagery in a lot of images and oftentimes if I see something, um, that's kind of how I get into a poem or a story as kind of visualizing it. Um, so kind of exploring that allows me to get into starting to think about a character or the lines of a poem. My poems are very lyrical, so sound and music is also important as well and rhythm. But even painting I think, and photographs have a rhythm and movement in them, whether it's a very quiet one or one that really moves you. Um, there's something about that. So for me, really, I've kind of always worked with texts and images, um, from the get go. I can get really messy. So I like mess though. Mess is good. Good mess. This isn't, this is not hot mess. This is good mess.
Candace: 00:07:37 Exactly.
Candace: 00:07:40 You need a little mess for there to be good art. So yes.
Rachel Eliza: 00:07:43 Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Candace: 00:07:46 I, I'm, one of the things that really stood out to me with what you were just describing is how, you know poetry and that visual side of your brain coexist in like on one hand, like we're all used to poetry and obviously there's images and that you see things, but it's really great to think of being a poet as someone who is also a visual because we always assume that poets only see things in words and like how they think it should sound or be described. But it's great that you are a visual person but you're also able to express that in your vocabulary as well.
Rachel Eliza: 00:08:20 Yeah, I mean I think there's certain feelings that we have that happen, you know, through sight that can't be put into words and vice versa. Like there's certain things we read that we almost can't see them except through language and then like understand and comprehend them. And um, sometimes I like to just, um, I don't know, see myself as kind of actually a seer, which, you know, has a spiritual reality to it when you're a seer, um, you, that happens across dimension, across genre, across mediums. Um, and it's a way to, um, be aware at all times that there are greater things and unseen things in the world than you. Right. And you're trying to connect them and be a conduit for a lot of different things. And I often feel that way as being a conduit as far as vision. Seeing, um, whether it's an image with my eyes, but also whether it's something kind of that there has to be more work to like unearth it and expose it and pull it up.
Rachel Eliza: 00:09:32 And that's through language. So more and more as in my old age, I don't really separate them as much as I used to be because before I was kind of OCD. Like, this is a picture, this is a poem, but even poems have a visual quality. Why do some poems have a lot of empty space in them? Why do some poems look kind of like towers or bricks or prose poems or poems that actually have the shape of maybe the mood or feeling in the poem. And so, um, there's um, there seems to be a relationship between all of those things.
Candace: 00:10:11 When, when you're creating, whether it's visually or more lyrically, does it ever, does it come kind of naturally to you that, you know, something should be photographed rather than written or something should be written in a certain way that is visual. Does it come to you kind of naturally where you're not thinking about it or are these more kind of intentional efforts that you're making as you're creating the work?
Rachel Eliza: 00:10:38 I think it's a combination of both. Some things are organic for me and I just know and I, I really work by instinct and intuition, but that also means experimenting. And that also means failing. Like I might think, oh, what will happen if I do this and something might tell me no, it just, this is how it is. I don't have the same process for every project. It really is the feeling or what I'm looking at or studying or exploring will sometimes I'm kind of dictate what the shape or process may be and sometimes just curiosity. Like what would happen if I tried to photograph, you know, this word or do some kind of associative visual work with a poem or video or something. Like it all, it's never just like I do the same thing every time. One, I'm not the same person with each project.
Rachel Eliza: 00:11:38 I'm like hopefully evolved or I've absorbed new experiences. I've read new books, I've heard new songs and music and so all of that stuff that I absorbed around me is in going into kind of each of the work. And so I like to really think of each thing is kind of having its own body so it has its own unique systems of how it works together and sometimes it doesn't work and I just keep pushing it until I'm like, this is like, this isn't working, you need to just stop. Sometimes it's a matter of like, this really needs to sit on the stove, go do something else. And then other times it's like, you just haven't gone far enough in thinking about this or seeing it. And then what can help me. Um, so it's, it's really, um, you know, working on a collection of poems.
Rachel Eliza: 00:12:32 The process is a bit different from working on say prose or working on a photo essay. But I feel like the, well, like in the, well that water is the same water that I'm pouring into different. So is it like ice this time? Is it ocean isn't river? Is this a little creek? Like what is this feel like? And I really go from a place of feeling and um, sometimes I'll mess up. But even, and that's good, like that mess may become the seed for me to go do something else, or even just the process of not getting it where I want to be gives me space to think about what else it was trying to be, um, or, or that kind of thing. So, I mean, I love all parts of it. I mean, it depends when I'm under a deadline, it's not cute, but when I have time, when I'm on my own time, it's like, you know, just play, play with this and not take it so seriously.
Rachel Eliza: 00:13:31 Like the first try is going to be the end all be all because the first time it probably isn't. Probably really isn't going to be, um, be right. Unless you're someone wonderful and brilliant like Roxanne Gay who just writes amazing things and just right away and you're just like, oh, thank you. You know, you get your fix.
Candace: 00:13:50 Exactly!
Rachel Eliza: 00:13:50 So yeah.
Candace: 00:13:53 What would you say is, is there anything that kind of helps you when you're in that process where you're stuck or where you feel like you have something that has great potential, but now you've got to go back and revise it? Which for me is always the worst part of the process. I'm always like, I don't want to revise, but I know it needs it. Like what you through that process.
Rachel Eliza: 00:14:15 Oh, Lord. Candace. I don't know how much time you have today, girl. I mean, what, what gets us through a day even, you know what I mean?
Candace: 00:14:26 Yes.
Rachel Eliza: 00:14:28 So I mean, what gets us through, I mean, what gets us through our joy, what gets us through our suffering, what gets us through all the things in between. I mean, when I get stuck I try to Kinda feed myself from other sources. Um, so I love music. Music is a way for me to really turn music on and it helps me kind of like go backwards, kind of put my car in reverse and back up and then see, oh, you missed a turn. It was back there or you know, you need to just sit here until the rain passes on the side of the road and then see, you know, how much further you can go sometimes. Um, you know, I mean, one of the first and foremost ways I can kind of unstick myself is through reading, so I may go back to two books, um, that seemed to just remind me of why I continue to do this crazy stuff.
Rachel Eliza: 00:15:30 And um, I, I also may pick up something that I've been meaning to read and then I kind of distract myself. So then I come back to the work and just have a little more space. Um, I also love to eat. I'll go eat, I'll go do, you know, like sometimes for me it's as simple as taking a good long nap or walk or spending some time with friends and stuff. And then just or films, um, I don't have the time these days to like Netflix binge so I have to like live through my other friends who get to Netflix binge. Um, but sometimes I'll walk, watch a film or something that might be similar to something I'm working on and be like, well, how did that, how did that artist, how did that writer negotiate the terms of that? Um, but there's so many things.
Rachel Eliza: 00:16:23 I mean, I will hit up a museum or a gallery, um, whether it's a gallery or museum that I returned to you to see, like one particular painting and I'll stand there for a minute and have kind of church or you know, I'll pick up, you know, biography or something of someone's story and just kind of lose myself in that and say, okay, you know, you can do this. Sometimes it's travel. Um, I've just come back from a traveling in Savannah this past few days along the Geechi Gullah corridor and I'm just like, oh my Lord. It's so amazing. And so that kind of gate charged me in so many ways. Historically, spiritually, culturally, everything. Um, I'm good on shrimp. The shrimp, I'm good because. Seafood. I'm originally from DC. So when they like, oh, you want crab legs? I was like, do I always want to crab leg so, that was really beautiful, but you know, the people there, when you meet them they say "I love you", that's just what they say.
Rachel Eliza: 00:17:36 They say it to each other and they welcome me as family, not as a stranger, you know, and so I'm sitting here and just like a space of love. I'm thinking of West Africans who were brought here as slaves and who persisted when their culture and their language and their music and color. I'm just like, okay, whatever project I was stuck on, I'm ready to go now. And I'm, I'm working from a space of gratitude with that. I will be doing some hot yoga though because shrimp life is real. I can't say no to the combo.
Candace: 00:18:18 I know I. The thing is, so I love. Like, my mom makes this tremendously, just fantastic salmon and I am not a seafood person. Like my mom is from DC so she knows the whole thing about the crab legs and everything, but I've gotta I've gotta get me something that's a little meaty, like some salmon or some grouper and then I'm good.
Rachel Eliza: 00:18:41 Then you're good. And it's all about the goodness. That's what it's about. So at the end of the day you're like, okay, I feel good.
Candace: 00:18:50 Exactly.
Rachel Eliza: 00:18:51 We just bonded.
Candace: 00:18:53 We did! Totally. And you mentioned something that is, um, I absolutely felt it on a whole nother level and you're talking about like traveling and I have gone to South Carolina many times and I've had the, I don't even know the word a in a way it feels like a privilege, but it's also a little haunting. But being able to visit several different plantations. And I've just gotten the biggest obsession almost like I know it's a thing I want to do, of like almost taking a road trip and going to as many as I can because there's something about being there that obviously like its haunting, it sparks your interest. You start seeing things and thinking about, you know, how life was for all of these people.
Candace: 00:19:39 But it always gives me the sense that, you know, I have some type of responsibility to go out there and to create the things that are on my heart because I have some type of freedom to do. So maybe not all the freedoms that you know, we still dream about. But more more agency than obviously our ancestors did. So it is interesting just talking about how going to certain places alone can really fuel that creative space.
Rachel Eliza: 00:20:08 Oh, I completely love what you just said. I think for me in particular, um, you know, this word freedom, right? This word free and you know, it's a, it's a state of being. It's also a verb. It's an action to free oneself to free someone else to free one's mind, one's body, um, but also to claim it freedom to be free as a state of grace seems really important.
Rachel Eliza: 00:20:43 And um, I, I am, I'm always aware that I'm sitting on the shoulders of many, many people. Um, and that, you know, I think it's Baldwin who talks about, you know, the crown, you know, like the, the price of the ticket, like it's been paid for and at the same time there's a freedom to go forward and all kinds of ways. And that ends in some way. You know, free also allows you to have a vocabulary that, you know, tries to articulate how that feels for, for, for each of us, right? Like my free, it may not be someone else's free and that's, and that's what freedom, like, that's fine. Um, I mean if we're talking about civil rights or something, then freedom again has, has a meaning and it's not different in some ways. And I think the free that you and I are talking about.
Rachel Eliza: 00:21:44 But um, for me, I'm always thinking of, you know, how do, how do I get more free, right when I think I'm like, oh, I'm free. I always find these challenges, whether it's someone else's microaggressions or someone's just blatant egregious kind of disrespect or something. I realize that I'm a captive and reactive in ways that I thought I had kind of outgrown or controlled. And June Jordan has this wonderful quote. Um, sometimes I am the terrorist, I must disarm. And um, I just love that. Like I love thinking about, um, checking in with myself and checking myself when I need to. And also feeling free to check other people too, seems part of all of the kind of work. Um, whether that work is happening in a poem or an image that I'm making, you know, um, being present. So there's, there's some of that.
Candace: 00:22:53 Absolutely. Absolutely. Um, Oh man, there's so many things I want to say. Okay. Where do we begin?
Rachel Eliza: 00:23:00 We're going there. We're going there.
Candace: 00:23:05 Yes we are. Okay, let's do a detour. In a sense and
Rachel Eliza: 00:23:09 Sure.
Candace: 00:23:10 Let's talk about residencies because I have so many. Just wonderful souls and friends of mine who are artists and they always struggle with, you know, how best to make use of that time and is this time needed and how do we make this time for ourselves if we don't, you know, have that opportunity. Just so many questions that you have in terms of, you know, this idea of having a space to create. So what, I know you've had an opportunity to do, um, a lot of very well known residencies. What have you gotten from those experiences?
Rachel Eliza: 00:23:54 Well, I, I, I think I have um, gathered a number of things in my own experience and I'm only speaking from my own experience, um, and I will actually not name, name names or anything like that, but what I can say in general about residencies is that, um, you know, what intentions, what expectations, what hopes you have for your work, um, is so critical when you go to a residency. Um, I mean it, for me, my own experience is, um, they're usually highly productive times for me. And yet there have been some times where, you know, I've gone somewhere and like the first maybe three or four days, I'm mostly sleeping because I'm kind of expelling daily life like out of my system so that I can make space to even hear my own voice on the page or visually. Um, but then there are times too where like,
Rachel Eliza: 00:24:58 You know, you're at the residency and you're on someone else's timeline or schedule. Some residencies are different, but if you're at a residency where you have to eat on at a certain time and you're not used to that, you know, you have to get used to that. Um, you know, we're human beings, so like our bodies and how we tend to make ourselves comfortable, you know, what is the pillow feel like, what is the bed feel like? Like all of these kinds of things actually really matter because you are removed from what you're used to. Um, and there are ways to kind of bring home with you, but at the same time it's, it's, um, you're not home, you know. Um, I think residencies are wonderful. Um, and I think, you know, I've come, I've met some really wonderful friends through residencies and then there are other times where people only see me when it's time to eat because I'm really not. I don't want to talk. I don't want to be available in a way. I need to just be available for the work. And there are a lot of different types of residencies that can allow you more or less a vision. Some places are like, show up some places, make lunch for you and leave it outside your door or you pick it up. In the common room.
Candace: 00:26:14 That sounds amazing.
Rachel Eliza: 00:26:18 I know right? It sounds amazing, but it depends. It depends who's making that lunch *laughs*. No, it's nice. But um, some residency's want everyone to eat at least one meal, which is usually dinner together. Um, some residencies, you know, have certain hours that may or may not fit with your own timeline. Um, some people work all night, some people work only during day and they go to bed early. It really, really depends. Um, I think one of the things to keep in mind with residencies is that, you know, it's like this question of time and how are, how are you going to occupy that time? And I think sometimes there can be pressure where, "Oh, I have this residency and I have to make something. I have to get through something" and that doesn't always happen. Um, and you feel very guilty, but you wonder, well, what did I need to read some somewhat.
Rachel Eliza: 00:27:16 Sometimes I've gone on residencies and I've mostly just been reading most of the time because I don't have that time in my day to day life to just sit around and read. Other times it's making notes. It's trying to have a reentry plan for when you get back, which I think is really important. Um, I think it, you know, when your on residency, you're kind of suspended from reality and you live in this, this beautiful bubble where you're just, it's so selfish. It's so great. It's just all, it's like it's all about you is really all about you. Right? Um, and yeah, if you become too dependent on residencies and you just have all these reasons why you can't write when you're just at home, you run the risk of setting up the psychology in your mind where you can only work when you're away from your life.
Rachel Eliza: 00:28:07 And so the challenges on a daily basis or weekly basis, whatever turns you separate yourself of your writing life, your inner life. Like how do you give that to yourself into how do you integrate that with your life? Um, but I, I mean I love residencies for me, they're usually quite productive. I usually will work on multiple projects at one time or generate seeds even if I'm working on one thing, seeds for what I want to grow when I get back and work on. Um, and it's just also the generosity that someone else understands what a writer needs, which is time and solitude and unplugging, um, and people setting up spaces for us to do that is so beautiful to me.
Rachel Eliza: 00:29:03 I think the longest residency I've gone on, it's been seven weeks and I mean, you know, there were some moments where I was lonely or you know, it was just so, so isolated that I was overwhelmed. Um, I think also it depends who else is there with you, someone getting on your nerves, suddenly no one has ever gotten on your nerves more than this one person is like, oh, this is, you know, and you have to like check that. Like what are you like not to get distracted by something that happens or what have you. Um, so I, you know, I mean, I love residencies. I'm a fan of them. It's wonderful when you apply and you get it, you just feel so happy and joyful that you're going to get the space and energy to work. It's really beautiful to have that. So I'm a fan. I'm a fan of them.
Candace: 00:29:59 I think it would be great to have time set aside like I've even noticed in my own life like coming out of school and you have all of the things that ebbs and flow of your life and I've found personally that it's been hard for me to read the way I used to, like I used to just like sit in a chair for hours and finish a book, but now I've had to be a lot more intentional about no I'm getting up, you know, and reading this amount in the morning I'm going to stop everything I'm doing at this time in the evening and read. And you really have to start putting that effort into play when you're in the middle of your life.
Rachel Eliza: 00:30:37 Yeah, absolutely. I mean, sometimes I just have like, I'll get like a Google alert, like time to read, like reading block, you know, and I, I have to at this point kind of schedule it in and I'll usually have multiple things I'm looking at, you know, reading and so, um, it's a space of meditation in a sense for me as well, so in the reading may have nothing to do with anything that I'm working on and sometimes it's directly connected to what I'm working on or I think it has nothing to do with what I'm working on. And then I'm like, oh, snap. They got me. Like, here it is, like this is what the unconscious has done. Um, and also I love particularly with poets. I mean I have stacks of books by new books, by poets that I love and poets I don't know, but have been introduced through to them on the page.
Rachel Eliza: 00:31:31 And so, um, I also find it beautiful to, you know, um, spend time reading what people are working on now. Um, and then, uh, I also have my, like old school playlist of books that I just constantly go back to, whether they're about craft of spirit or, you know, just novels or biographies or Art Books. Um, I look at those a lot too. So, um, if I'm looking around my desk right now where I'm sitting, I mean it's just, I'd be like, people would talk about me because of my whole situation is just going on.
Candace: 00:32:11 I feel that!
Rachel Eliza: 00:32:11 I can just look, you know, where's the Ikea shelf that could handle this right now is real surreal right now. But I also love that my inner life is so bright. And so when I look at this I'm like, okay inner life is good inner life is good, what will you make next? You know?
Candace: 00:32:34 Yeah. When you, um, I know you mentioned that you revisit a lot of books, do you find yourself, um, in a way, you know, discovering new things or is it more kind of reigniting, you know, the flame that, that, that, that book kind of sets in you?
Rachel Eliza: 00:32:55 I think, again, I think it's a little bit of both for me. Um, there are certain books that just always light my fires and um, and what's beautiful is that I'm never the same. It's never the same fire when I go back because I'm different, you know. Um, I could read a book today and read the same book tomorrow and see different things or put more emphasis on a character or scene or piece of dialogue that I didn't the day before. Um, and then that can happen over a span of years, you know, um, you know, I mean I'm glad I don't feel this way about my exes. Like I'll just go.
Rachel Eliza: 00:33:37 I mean books are just so they're just there and um, I find them comforting and challenging. I mean they can soothe me to just kind of go and look at books, but they also can challenge me like, you know, what are you doing, what are you, what's important to you? And I also just, when I'm trying to figure out a particular craft thing, reading is probably the clearest way for me to understand, um, what to do next in my own work is to read and I would say reading probably even more than than going to my graduate program. I'm reading long before going to school. Just helped me learn my own voice and, and things that I want to write about, people I want to write about and see. I'm in the same way that I'm self taught as a, as a photographer because you don't have people saying, oh no, you can't do this or that's the wrong way. It's like, you know, I'm not waiting for someone to tell me. I'm like James Brown, like open up the door, I'll get it myself. I'm just gonna do this and make it and see what happens. And, you know, there's pros and cons to that. So
Candace: 00:34:53 Yeah. And I, I love this idea of not needing permission in that process and kind of creating your own thing. Like the, um, you have some very lovely, um, videos that you have made for a lot of your poetry collections. Um, I think that was probably one of the things that struck me because one first drawn like, yes, your words, but then seeing how you were bridging together all of these different mediums. Um, I know I mainly studied poetry and film when I was in school, so it was great to see someone merging those two things together and saying, yes, here I have written something. Yes. Here it is. Consumed in the idea of yes. So you sit there and you quietly read, but also, hey, we can take this to the next level and actually articulate, you know, in moving form the images and the ideas and the emotions of this book. So in that sense of, you know, not needing any direction, where did you kind of get the first idea? Was it kind of playing around type of idea? Let me try this. How did you get to that point?
Rachel Eliza: 00:36:05 I think probably a few things. Um, I think having a background as a photographer, um, I was interested at a certain point of like images, images, being able to move that I wanted to go past this still image. I know for the pop pro project pop,
Rachel Eliza: 00:36:34 I had been photographing poets for years. I'm doing portraits of poets and one of the frustrations of, of that, because I'm also a poet, is um, you know, how can this portrait speak to the interior self that I've met on the page. So how can this portrait in some way show the mood or some likeness in a kind of thematic way? Um, because the portrait that I find on the page as a poem of the poet, you know, that doesn't, that usually doesn't translate to the person sitting in front of you and us both being like, oh goodness, this portrait, you know, we're so conscious of our bodies and, and kind of different tensions of being photographed by someone else, much less even like a Selfie, you know, like how do we navigate that? So at a certain point I thought, how can I allow
Rachel Eliza: 00:37:40 these portraits to do more than what they've always done? And I, in a very selfish way, I'm like, what would happen if I were able to use the same techniques of photography like portraiture to making these intimate videos where the poet gets to speak, we get to collaborate as photographer, poet, photographer, and poet, rather than me sort of like taking the picture, like that's not an exchange, you know, so the video allowed an exchange where the subject, quote unquote got to speak, was able to speak and have a voice and the visual image. Um, and so that was, that was an exciting project. Um, and I also learned a lot about kind of making videos technically and also just working with the form. I think also. And so that kind of, um, got me thinking about, um, associative visuals for my own poetry. I think the first lyric video I made for a book of mine was for "Mule and Pair" and I just, I loved working on that.
Rachel Eliza: 00:38:59 It helped me see the book, the language in the book, the energy of the book, the mood of the book in a way that was really beautiful for me, um, as creating it and it allowed it to have this kind of other life or other dimension in a way that could be shared with others differently than like posting a poem or something like that. So, um, it also just allowed me to ask very fabulous, beautiful black women friends of mine, will they help me? And so then I brought in all these sisters, my sisters and the book is about black womanhood, "Mule and Pair", um, and black women's narratives. So it all was just organic and it was all working together, you know. And then as I wrote the book, I mostly listened to Nina Simone, so it just, it all just poured kind of into where it went intuitively.
Rachel Eliza: 00:39:57 And so just that whole process, um, gave me so much and it also made me feel like I was creating beyond the actual, just final product of the book. I don't know, whenever, whenever I publish another book of Poetry, um, you know, I don't know if I will do a lyric video, um, but they're, so they're so beautiful to look at it. And also when I was growing up and I will date myself now, I mean your whole life was about the music video; Link, we watched BET Late night videos, MTV, you know, the Michael Jackson videos or like a moment on TV like, you know, like they were scheduled like you were sitting in your living room and your Mama let you stay up late to watch the Michael Jackson video.
Candace: 00:40:50 Yes!
Rachel Eliza: 00:40:50 You know, Janet Jackson videos. Are you kidding? Like I would have "Pleasure Principle" whole choreography. Like wait, pause it there.
Rachel Eliza: 00:40:57 Wait. And you know, like, oh wait, get to chair. We're going to put the. Oh I don't have any knee pads. Like you got to be. So yeah, you could just see there's just so many ways. So the music video and like there's, I mean I would love to do music, music videos some days, but even now like you see digital videos, I mean when you look at, you know, Coloring Book or Lemonade or hole or salon, like there's just the video has been taken to the next level with music now, you know, so it really, really has where you have these small films and things and I think it's wonderful and I'm interested in exploring that a lot more actually. Um, so, um, yeah, I mean that's kind of where I feel like I've gotten so far away from what you originally asked me, but that's, that's kind of what's happened with video for me.
Candace: 00:41:57 You mentioned music videos and it's still true, like having a lot of the short films. I do believe, I feel like Michael Jackson was a very big turning point for that. Someone who's really inspires me today. I think would be Corrina Evans, who's done a lot of the music videos lately for Drake. She just has a wonderful style and she's so young doing it too like, it's incredible. It's just incredible.
Rachel Eliza: 00:42:24 It's so incredible too because I mean when I was growing up again like, I think as I was graduating from high school, it was like AOL where you could hear the dialtone, like the technology wasn't.
Rachel Eliza: 00:42:40 So it's like the technology now where people can make whole feature films from an iphone that didn't exist, you know, like Boomerang on even instagram. Like you, there's access to the technology in a way that allows people, one like you just do it yourself and make it, um, and then see what happens. But even just making videos, one minute videos, two minute videos or you can even just watch videos, kind of like wherever. And now short films are such a form, like there's whole festivals and prizes and things for, you know, two, three, four minute films. I mean now to even fashion, fashion videos, perfume videos. I mean the advertising is insane. Using videos and um, there's a um, uh, Kelsey Lu video I really love. It's black and white. I'm forgetting the song, but like there's just so many videos that I kind of have a whole kind of video video file of videos that I go to for kind of just, it's similar to my reading thing of like books that I returned to.
Rachel Eliza: 00:43:55 There's videos I go back to over and over. Okay. Sade videos. Like Sade riding on the horse in black and white with the white shirt billowing like queen and wait until that album comes out. Soldier of love. I was like, Sade can get it on.
Rachel Eliza: 00:44:15 I am excited and so excited, you know, like Maxwell is like when these girls levitated it from the bed? I was like, "Oh Lord". And it was just beautiful. Like the texture of the, like in the different women are different. Looks like all of this. Like it was just, it's just gorgeousness I'm, you know, I'm, I don't know how many times now I've watched um, the, "This is America" video with Donald Glover, like just studying and they become like text right?
Candace: 00:44:50 They do.
Rachel Eliza: 00:44:50 Like people really are looking at them and dissecting them and thinking about them in ways that is completely different from when I grew up.
Rachel Eliza: 00:45:01 So I think we're even just beginning to see, um, the dimensions of what video can do. I mean, Kanye West had a whole, I'm going to speak his name for a minute, but he had a whole, you know, My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy. Like, I mean that was that whole video. I mean it's a film, you know, I mean that was, that was glorious. I don't, I'm not gonna say anything else but I'm not gonna talk about that.
Candace: 00:45:28 And it's, I think it's great because it, it's a work of art in itself, but it also completes the art and it just, I feel a video heightens your senses about the entire work in a way that you don't always get with just an image or just text. Not to make light of the two, but it just really adds something to, like you said, all the detail that you look at it and everything that you notice about that form.
Rachel Eliza: 00:45:59 Right. And I think sometimes people feel as though they have to choose or privilege one above the other, you know, instead of maybe saying, well, let's just look at the relationship of what, you know, one person is doing with this material, this content in this different form, right. So, you know, I mean, when people compare books and movies, you know, the director of the movie, that's like a separate person from the writer, so to say, Oh, the movie was better than the book or the book. It's like there are two different people. It's not like the same person may the full length feature film and wrote the book and like acknowledging like what was this director trying to do? And how was that director reading the book, you know, this is their interpretation of the book. Um, and so I think that's, that's fascinating that oftentimes I'm often asked, oh, are you, are you more of a photographer?
Rachel Eliza: 00:46:57 Or visual artists, are you more, you know, a writer? And then you just. And I'm like, you know, that'd be like me being like, oh, well if I need my kidneys or my stomach, it's like I need both of these, these are internal organs. They work in a system together. Sometimes I know what's happening and sometimes I don't know when I'm first working on things, but I don't. I think also once you just immediately out the gate trying to say which is better, you just narrow your whole experience of it. And there are certain movies. I'm like, you know, I preferred the book, I don't like the director's vision. It didn't work for me. And then, you know, it can go the other way too where I'm like, wow, this movie has brought this book to life or made or focus on this particular aspect of this book. I hadn't even really thought about when I read the book, you know. And so, um, you know, I mean, I think it's all fascinating to, to consider and think about
Candace: 00:47:56 Absolutely. What things do you have on the horizon that you're excited about? If you can tell us.
Rachel Eliza: 00:48:06 So I, um, I am in the process of working on my first novel right now, um, which is a completely different creature than working on, um, a book of poems or photographs. Um, I find it very challenging in the best and most frustrating way, but I've always written prose for whatever reason. Um, careerwise poetry happened first in a way. Um, but I think prose, for me anyway, um, it, it's kind of in if it needs a longer fermentation time. So when I was in graduate school, I studied fiction actually. And now 10 something years later, I'm finally feeling like I know something about the world to write a first novel. Um, and um, this disrupted my idea of like I'm going to graduate, I'm going to write my novel and I write my next novel and the life, the work, everything was like no, what you gone do is listen and wait about 10-12 years and then you're going to write something and then you're going to try.
Rachel Eliza: 00:49:18 You're going to try to write something and see if it works, see if it matters to you. So that's what I'm in the process doing. And um, you know, working on a novel, it's kind of like hiding under a rock and yet you're trying to like bring the whole world in and make a world and make characters and um, and not go crazy. So Candace between not going crazy, but it's, it's like, um, it's been, it's been a process, it's a process, um, and it's really exciting. Like, you know, I'm in a process where I'm not kind of under the gun with, you know, an editor or publisher or anything like that, but I'm still so close to the language and the story and the characters and listening to them that it's um, it's kind of hard magic though, hard work, but the magical that this is happening and looking up and seeing like, oh, there's hundreds of pages. Not Hundreds, but definitely more than a poetry manuscript. I'm uncertainly very different from photography or videos. So that's, that's what I'm working on now is a novel and they just, they take time. Um, that's, that's the plan. So we'll see what happens with it.
Rachel Eliza: 00:50:48 I'm on here like, oh, this novel, I'm going to talk to you in about 10 years. Rachel was a novel is we'll see
Candace: 00:51:02 While we're all over here on the preorder list, like, wait a second.
Rachel Eliza: 00:51:08 Oh, you are so sweet.
Candace: 00:51:10 Yeah. I want to see that preorder day. Ooh, I can't wait.
Rachel Eliza: 00:51:18 We'll see. We'll see. Work in progress. Work in progress. We'll see.
Candace: 00:51:23 Absolutely, and I love that you're always so enthusiastic about the process because like you said, the process is hard but always committed to it.
Rachel Eliza: 00:51:35 Oh yeah. I mean I'm committed to it and there are days when I have the whole ugly cry like when Viola Davis was in Fences and just the snot in the whole like that's me. And then at the same time, you know, I can be, you know, Suge In The Color Purple, swinging a tambourine around like I can go through so much, but all of it and just all of it is beautiful and necessary and it's how life is, you know, and
Candace: 00:52:09 Yeah.
Rachel Eliza: 00:52:10 You know, there's moments I grieve things as celebrate. I curse and rant. I support and uphold and uplift. Like it's just enduring. And I think again, just obviously I love Baldwin as many people. I'm sure listening this is, you know, you can have all the talent and be as gifted as you want, but endurance and discipline at the end of the day, like, you know, that's, that's what gets the work done. And first and foremost, for me, it's getting the work done. It's the work, however long it takes. Um, and there have been times where, you know, I'm looking at something and I think I can't do this now. I'm not ready or I have to walk away from this and that's hard too. Um, and so not everything. Half the things that I think I'm going to do, you know, they sit in a journal written up as you know, to do or ideas or brainstorm allowed.
Rachel Eliza: 00:53:11 My mother died four years ago and you know, I was like, oh, I'm going to, I'm going to write poems for her and this and that. And I just couldn't. I could barely read. I couldn't write, I couldn't focus on anything. And that voice inside said this year, "it's just not. You can't even begin to comprehend what is happening to you, you know, and just let it be. Let go of it just stop" and I listened and just stopped. And then very, very slowly. Here's one line, here's a word, here's something, you know, and that's, it's been like stone by stone, joy by joy. And I'm finally starting to write some new poems. But that was the first time in my life where I really couldn't write a poem. And matter of fact, I was like, no, I can't stand poetry. Why do people do this?
Rachel Eliza: 00:54:06 And um, you know, finally just letting go and being open and being vulnerable. I was like, okay, you know, I'll never write the way I used to write because I'm not the same person. Now I'm not having my mother in the world. How could I be? You know, she's still here, she's in the world and me. But of course the palms are going to be so different, you know, and they are now. And there's a joy in that. But, um, the, the, the whole experience in our, I, I'm still in kind of an unable to comprehend in comprehension of it. And at the same time, feeling grateful for other ways that she prepared me to be the woman I'm becoming, You know.
Candace: 00:54:52 That's beautiful.
Rachel Eliza: 00:54:55 Yeah. No, thank you. It's so good to talk to you.
Candace: 00:54:58 I know I have enjoyed this so much oh my gosh, this is, this has gone by way too fast. Like we could have a whole season just sitting here talking about conditioning. Yeah, let me, let me go put some chicken on the stove,
Rachel Eliza: 00:55:24 All that, all that.
Candace: 00:55:27 So I will wrap up with our little Meraki Picks. Okay. So these are, yeah, they're general. Whatever comes to your mind. Whatever is on your heart when you hear that question. That's what we'll do you. So what is a restaurant that everyone should go to you?
Rachel Eliza: 00:55:48 I don't, I don't have one restaurant. I'm really bad. I mean, I think you should just go to a good restaurant. I preferred local restaurants so that you support your neighborhood. Um, I think that's really important. Um, but I, I just moved out of Brooklyn into New York, so my world is kind of. The restaurants I ate at in Brooklyn, um, are, are no longer like a part of my immediate life and so I'm in a new neighborhood and I'm kind of like, what y'all got to eat, you know?
Candace: 00:56:21 Exactly the most fun part when you get to explore.
Rachel Eliza: 00:56:27 I do exploring. I get recommendations from friends who are like, you got to eat this, you got to try that. So Indian food, Sushi, soul food. I mean in New York it's kind of like what do I feel like eating and then like either ordering it or going out or I'm a really good cook. I'm actually going to brag and actually say that in an interview. Like I can cook, you know, I got it from my mama but I can kind of throw it down. So I'm really picky about where I eat. But the thing is I just love to eat like put it in front of me. I'm going to eat it if it's good. You know, I'm looking at you like, who made the potato salad?
Candace: 00:57:10 Time to roll up the sleeves.
Rachel Eliza: 00:57:14 Oh No, that is one thing. You cannot mess up and you shall not mess it up. Not on my watch. Not Today. I'm like "Get your life together, with your potato salad. Bye!". So, I mean I also think it's beautiful and people just get together and cook, you know, um, you know, just have a, it's the company of the people you're in that makes the meal wherever that might be, whether you're sitting out with friends in the park or you're at somebody's house or here at the family reunion at a nice restaurant and it's your birthday, you know, all of that to me is kind of like the idea of eating, eating to me is super important of what you put in your body, you know,
Candace: 00:58:05 That is right. And eating is so much tied to memory. Like the hearing you talk right now, like that is an important.
Rachel Eliza: 00:58:12 Yeah. My mother had a fierce bread pudding recipe. Like I can't even tell people about it, I just make it. But when I make it in that smell is the same smell. I just expect her to suddenly come out and be like, Oh yeah, you let that cook too long because she'd be real critical. What you doing with the butter?!
Rachel Eliza: 00:58:34 You know, there's, there's just something so beautiful in sharing a meal. And a lot of times our memories are like, oh, remember when we went to that place and you ate that thing and it made you feel that way and you who were you with? And let's go there again. I think that's like a simple thing that just we have all our lives have kind of like memories associated by, by food or meals. Um, you know, whatever that might be. Absolutely. This is a good question. I'm going to be listening to all of these to here because I'm gonna get my restaurant lists together.
Candace: 00:59:11 Right I know! Yeah. They've been so different. And so very like, yeah, it's been great for me to just, just hearing that. Let me see. Okay. So are there songs or if even on a song like an artist that you've been rocking lately in your, in your earphones?
Rachel Eliza: 00:59:29 So I'm going to again probably date myself, although I find this person is timeless. I'm listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder right now, particularly the song "As"
Candace: 00:59:43 I'm all my goodness, say that that is playing at my wedding. I have decided it.
Rachel Eliza: 00:59:49 That it's beautiful. Yeah, it's really, really beautiful. And then also the song "Overjoyed" by him too, that I really, it's just makes me smile. Like, you know, first thing in the morning. Lately I've, I've played it while I'm kind of like brushing my teeth and getting my self together and I'm just like, wow, you know, just his voice and kind of it.
Rachel Eliza: 01:00:11 I found that anywhere I've gone, whether it's in Paris or Savannah or Mississippi or la, like that, Stevie comes on and people just like something happens. And so, um, as I'm starting to work on, as I'm starting to work on these poems about my mother, I mean she just jump up and start clapping her hands and do her little two step because you, these little bony legs, she'd do a two step when that Stevie comes on. And so, um, that, that reminder to dance and smile and that there's no separation, you know, "until the day that I am me, you are me and I am you. It's like, it's like a line from Neruda's poetry, you know? Um, yeah. So it's just this, this love song, but it's like a love song anywhere. Like anywhere you are, you hear and I love most of the versions of it.
Rachel Eliza: 01:01:05 Like that. George Michael, Mary j, Mary j version. I love that one too. Like that. There's just something in the fact that the song is so long, like you can just do, you can just have a whole moment playing that song. I'm just Stevie and just every way. I'm like, I just really. And then I'm always just listening to all kinds of things. I mean things that I also listened to a lot or like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and did I have listened maybe two weekends ago for was like, listen to the whole Cardi B just listened to it. I was like, okay, I'm listening to Cardi I'm to see what this would be. Let me see that. Like I will just listen. But since I asked him just coming from Savannah, I've been listening to a lot of Gullah geechee rhythms and kind of ring shout, um, and that's been really beautiful to just just no music but just clapping and voices that sounds so old. It just really, I just feel, I feel grateful that, that I kind of, that's my lineage. Those voices.
Candace: 01:02:17 Absolutely. Okay. The last one, I know for me it's the hardest. So as much as you read it, probably will, you'll probably think of a lot of different things, but is there any quote or even piece of advice, maybe something you've heard from the family member that you kind of live by that kind of drives you in those, in those hard moments?
Rachel Eliza: 01:02:42 Goodness, no, you're right. Earlier I mentioned June Jordan, um, her quotes, "Sometimes I am the terrorists. I must disarm," which I find beautiful. There's a lot of. I've returned frequently to Audrey Lord. Um, I even a rule goes young letters to a poet is something I read frequently, but also I remember when I was um, a young girl, um, one of the times when my mother was ill, we went to the hospital and they were kind of like, this is it. And I was like, maybe like 12 or 13 years old. And I came in the room and there's like all these machines around her and everything and she looks so little. She looked like a child in the bed. And um, you know, I was really scared and um, you know, I held her hand and she just said, you are stronger than you think. And I mean, I think um, for me, when I'm in vulnerable situations and even when I'm feeling, you know, happy, which is most of the time I, uh, I feel happy.
Rachel Eliza: 01:03:51 I feel like there's a lot of work we all need to do, whether it's, you know, intimately with ourselves in our own direct relationships to others. But then this whole country right now, I just had to resist using a four letter word but pockets, but that, this, this strength. Um, and for me, the word "stronger" holds so much. Um, and when I get overwhelmed I just hear her saying it. And I think I see her with all of these things attached to her body. And yet her spirit and what she gave and how generous and smart she was and how she loved. She loved really fiercely. And so, um, there's so many writers whose words I could quote to you, but I think, um, with the work that you're doing and the conversations you're having, mothers, you know, I mean, they're mentors, they're friends, they're complicated, they can be difficult.
Candace: 01:05:00 They are.
Rachel Eliza: 01:05:02 And yet, you know, you get one right, for better or for worse. So her saying "you're stronger than you think" also made me feel, oh, she knows me, you know, she knows me and she's been, she's been pretty accurate these last few years. Um, and so I, I return to that whether I'm terrified to make a photograph or to write the next sentence or to have the conversation or to, you know, say like I'm going to be okay, take strength and I don't necessarily mean the kind of strength that erases us and makes people not see black women because everyone assumes we're so powerful and strong, which we are. But at the same time, it's like we're made of blood and bones, you know, we can take so much and give so much. So that's, I think that's the thing that I would say to whoever is listening, "You're stronger than you think."
Rachel Eliza: 01:06:04 And then also, um, when I was in Savannah, I went to church on Sunday and at one point there was a moment where we were told, look at your neighbor and tell them "I love you and there's nothing you can do about it!" And I just thought that was so beautiful. I love you and there's nothing you can do about it. And so I'm going to be just loving up on people all around New York and wherever I go. And then just leave it. Like, who is this crazy black woman? "I love you and there's nothing you can do about it!" And I just, Oh, I love the power of that. And I love like the freedom. That's freedom. That's like, okay, you know, and action, like everything. So I think this is going to be the thing I'm going to do to like scare high school students because they scare me because they're just big and smart. And I'm like, Oh my God, I'm old. So I'd be like just welcome them, talk to them that way and make them laugh and then I'll be like, okay, like let's talk about poems now. Let's talk about the nitty gritty. Now we gone go there. I don't have a choice.
Candace: 01:07:12 Rachel Eliza, this has been a joy.
Rachel Eliza: 01:07:15 Thank you so much Candace. I really appreciate it. It's such an honor and good luck with this beautiful project you're doing.
Candace: 01:07:22 Thank you so much. I am, I'm full of gratitude to you and all of the women who've been gracious enough to share the most important thing we all have, which is our time to spread a little joy and as you said, a little love across the airwaves. I'm very grateful.
Rachel Eliza: 01:07:40 I can't wait to listen to everyone. I just cannot wait. Congrats. This is great. Yes. Thank you so much. Welcome.
Narrator: 01:07:50 You've been listening to Meraki Mentors, podcasts with Candace Howze. We're honored you chose to spend your time with us today. To learn more about today's guest or the podcast visit Meraki Mentors podcast.com.