Passion is everything you are coming back to you.”
F.A.L.D. #13 Poet Feauture : Teré Fowler-chapman
Teré Fowler-Chapman is a gender fluid writer–by way of this sonoran desert | by way of the boot’s bayou. This poet is a winner of National Arts Strategies’ Creative Community Fellowship, an educator, and family man. Teré is the founder of Words on the Ave, downtown Tucson’s spoken-word reading series, curated by the city, for the city.
“Everyone brings what they think they need. Then the rest of the city just listens,” Teré says over coffee outside Cafe Passe, the venue space used by WOTA. Our conversation is recorded by a mic-emulation app on my phone, balanced on a small pile of books between us, & framed by a consistent stream of folks recognizing Teré, asking how they’ve been & about WOTA, local poets & writers & listeners who’ve been influenced by their impact on our desert city.
“Come as you are. & as long as you’re coming from a good place, I think Tucson will respect you.”
N!P : Let’s start with that cliche literary question, what’s your writing process like?
TFC : My writing process is not really a process to me, it’s more of a commitment to make sure I’m always available for my writing. And so, when it’s time to write a poem, I feel like my writing kind of does this thing where it just comes over me. & so just making sure that I always have a good notebook or a piece of paper and pen or something to write it down, and later on, always making sure I have time to go back to my writing. So, usually how I write is to process & let that marinate in a notebook and then visit it later and look at it and try to craft it into a poem.
N!P : It’s kind of like developing long-term relationships with individual pieces?
TFC : Exactly.
N!P : Then they re-surface & go back under?
TFC : Yeah, that’s my goal, that when I perform a poem I want you to look at that poem as a person. I want that to be someone that you want to sit down & have coffee with.
N!P : That ties into the next question. How do you work? Do you write everyday? Are there particular patterns with the way you write? Or is it very spontaneous?
TFC : I find that when I try to write everyday or write at a specific time I feel very robotic. & it reminds me of exactly what I did not want with my writing, which was for it to turn into a 9-5 type of job. I have to have a job where every day is an adventure, where every day it’s something new. & so I found that by writing consistently at the same time is just one facet of who I am. I’m in a completely different mood at 4am than I am at 4pm. & so mixing it up, just having diversity in time & environment really helps make your work multidimensional. I don’t really have a specific time or space where I say, “I’m going to write right now.”
N!P : Does how you’re writing is affect how you’re communicating outside of poetry?
TFC : I work with oil pastels. All of my oil work are found poems. A lot of my poetry is pulled from my experience in different conversations. So when someone’s talking or say something that sticks with me the next day, I turn it into a visual artwork.
N!P : How do your oil paintings & your poetry interact, the visual versus the language in a sense? What’s their roles together?
TFC : Some of the found poems you can actually see in some of the work you hear consistently. So they have direct correlations, like maybe a prompt or a moment that inspired a longer version of a poem, but also they’re just two different parts of who I am, right?
I feel like me the poet is just a fragment of who I am as an artist. & my music’s another fragment. & my oil’s another fragment. & so of course having all of them together is kind of like the whole being of who I am.
N!P : Bringing in the oil painting & your music, especially your spoken word (which seems to be a huge aspect of what you do across the board), what’s your relationship with the piece that you’re performing? When you write, do you keep it in mind for performance, or are there poems you’re specifically writing for the page—what are those interactions with those two aspects of your writing?
I think I respect my poems so much—& I’m so humbled by them—that I don’t feel like I sit and look at them like “I betcha I can memorize this.” That actually never happens. Poems either choose to live with me, or they choose their own apartment. *laughs* That’s just how they work.
So I don’t look at poems & say, “Could this be a spoken word piece?” I just write poems & it just what is, & I just accept that, & do the work to memorize the rest of it, right? Like the found poems—probably never performed those outloud—but they sit, right? They sit & they have this huge presence in visual manner, whereas they may have not had that presence had I just said it in a contemporary haiku or something, ya know? So it’s just respecting how they’re looking back at me, & respecting the direction they decide to go—I guess it’s kinda like an intuition.
N!P : How has location played with your writing & self-expression & your arts? Like landing in Tucson, & your history in Louisiana, your different homes—how has that affected your creativity?
TFC : My spoken word performances are definitely my ancestry coming thru me. I don’t even know where it comes from but in the same breath I know exactly where it comes from. Outside of my work I’m silly & goofy *laughs* & a lil awkward & then I get on stage & it’s a completely different self-awareness..
That awareness in my work is a gift my ancestry has given me. & I think that’s why it comes so naturally. & so as far as location, Tucson is just one of those blank canvas cities. If you believe in yourself, this city will believe in you. & so having a city like that, to be able to create, & being able to find my voice for the first time in a city like that, I’m very very lucky. Cause it doesn’t have that edginess, that, you know, that Hollywood has, where it’s cutthroat.
In Tucson, if you’re doing something original & it feels authentic, then people are going to want to know more about it. The ecosystem of the literary scene is reflective and cohesive. I think that it’s helped me become more confident & also realize how much of a gem it is to have a city like that.
N!P : If you had to express Tucson’s community, is that how you’d sum it up to someone who hasn’t been here before? Is it the blank canvas, or are there other aspects you’d want to bring in to someone who has no context for here?
TFC : Yeah—so, that actually happened last season. We had Alex Lofton from Alabama feature for Words on the Avenue, and rarely does it happen that someone reaches out to Words on the Avenue because we only do it once a month on a specific date—that’s a one out of 30 chance that they’re actually going to reach out to us & be available on that specific Sunday. & he was trying to get to Saudi Arabia for the last leg of his tour, & he just randomly reached out, & was like, “hey, can I stop in on Tucson & read poems? I got your name from so&so,” &, also, understanding that he didn’t really know anything about Tucson, right?
& so I did explain it to him like that, that Tucson is very much a blank canvas. & that people, at least at Words on the Avenue, do see you as who you are & how you present yourself. & so we do have that openness here, & so that’s basically how I explained—it’s a blank canvas.
Come as you are. & as long as you’re coming from a good place, I think Tucson will respect you.
N!P : With Words on the Ave, what triggered the idea to have the space? What brought about, “I’m going to push this open mic” to exist, & fight for it to exist?
TFC : So Toni Morrison is someone that really inspires me, & someone I consider a foremother.
& she mentioned that if you see something that isn’t there in your community or you see a story that isn’t there, then it’s your job to write it or create it. & I think that’s one of the responsibilities of being a poet. When you see something that doesn’t exist, create it.
So many of us can walk by an empty lot, and we see an empty lot. But one person can walk by & see an entire vision and this void being fulfilled. They’re the only one that can see it. & so it was like that with Words on the Avenue. When I first started reading out here, there really wasn’t anywhere I could be like an emerging artist. I would read at music open mics & things & I would just get swallowed by bands *laughs*
It wasn’t a horrible experience—but I knew that it could be better. & so then I basically said, “we need this, we need that as literary community.”
We need a space that we can be a work in progress, and honest, and have a platform to express who we are at any part of our journey. We need a space where people will accept that, and more importantly where people will celebrate that.
& so that’s literally where it came from.
N!P : Words on the Ave is a space where I see a lot of people are able to be relax & breathe. Like, you can physically see it: people who are otherwise very tense,they let their shoulders slack. It’s beautiful seeing that happen—when you started Words, was that intentional? Or was it like your writing, where the path formed itself as you went?
TFC : What I needed was intentional, right? You can have empathy for other people, but at the very end of the day you’re creating an experience from your own experiences.
Which is why collaboration is so crucial. It’s important to bring an array of experiences to the planning table to create a space for others. WOTA has an amazing team but at first it was just me.
So I intentionally created a space for people like me who were aspiring to read their work out loud on a platform that can hold it. & that was our foundation. As the WOTA path continues to form I learn more and more and with my team we have built from that foundation into a space that tries to hold a deeper meaning than just hosting an open mic dedicated to words.
Growing into a space that supports and uplifts others in the room really comes from listening from an authentic space & constantly making adjustments. For instance, it wasn’t just reading your work out loud that was needed. It was an atmosphere where people have other accessible people to look up to, right? It takes a village to raise a village. So we added a feature—someone others can aspire to be.
N!P : I like how that’s the idea that self-love inherently leads to communal care.
TFC : There you go.
N!P : Thru taking care of yourself, you take care of those around you in a way that everyone’s going to be more fulfilled.
TFC: Yes, exactly!
N!P : So with a developing Words on the Ave, how did that relate to you growing as a writer & as an artist? Did you see parallels or things you could pluck from?
TFC : Well, WOTA and my work grew up together. WOTA was a teacher for me and really showed me what my job was as an artist. Before Words on the Avenue came out, if you asked me what my job as a poet was, I would of been like, “oh, to write poems, & to get published.”
& that’s not the job of a poet at all. *laughs* That’s a very small fraction of what we do.
Our job is to use this creative language to hold people & to hold community together. That’s our job. To uplift voiceless voices. To inspire people that also inspire people thru this language of expression.
Once I realized that was my job, that’s when the teaching really came in. That’s when I started having more fun & getting more innovative with the workshops, as where before I’d be really excited to do it, but I also don’t know if I would have defined it as my purpose as a poet at the time. It was kinda like this add on.
Now it’s the epicenter. It’s who I am as a poet, & what my job is as a poet.
N!P : With that process, is that what led you into being an educator with you & being more hands on?
TFC : Yeah, & not just youth. I think youth—youth are amazing. & they have a tendency to be really fearless & very resilient & so it did get me in the direction with working with youth. But I think some of the most powerful work I’ve done is working with adults who have somehow lost that fearlessness and that resiliency.
For instance, you can go into a kindergarten class & ask a question that no one knows the answer to, & everyone in the room raises their hand. They all know the power is in the trying not in knowing the answer already. *laughs*
You can go into a high school class & ask the same question & all of a sudden everyone is second guessing themselves.
N!P : It’s like trying to reinvigorate that bewilderment—that childhood wonder, that fearlessness to just write and not stopping every other stanza.
TFC : Exactly. & so then you get into adulthood & you ask a question & people are spiritually leaving the room. *laughs*
N!P : With Words on the Ave, do you want to talk about its expansion & trying to find homes in other cities? What has that process been like? How did that come into play?
TFC : You know, a lot of people are poets but they don’t call themselves poets. & a lot of the people that come on stage at Words on the Avenue don’t even call themselves writers. They’re just like, “Oh, I wrote this thing, & here’s a place to share it,” & that turns into the one piece you remember the whole night, or the people that have this voice in their head telling them that they’re not good, & then they’re the memorable ones.
& so the idea that what if this platform & this formula was in every city and realizing that there are a lot of different ways to do it, but this is our formula & it works for Tucson, therefore it must be able to work other places. & so we are in the beginning stages, currently in conversation with a couple of cities here on the West Coast & really looking at the secret ingredients of WOTA & just trying to figure out if we can get community organizers to hold space in other spaces.
Cause I guess I think there’s also this other thing on the other side of Words on the Avenue with planning it. People want to organize & people want to hold place for their city. But a lot of times that intention is mimicked and not really learned. But also, again, the job of a poet is really to teach, right?
& so expand but also have mentorship lessons & leadership modules that you can take online to learn from success we have had and the mistakes we have made. So getting into the business of supporting and teaching other event organizers.
For instance, ensuring that a venue is accessible is very important, and our venue is not. If we could start things over, we definitely would of had the conversation with the previous owner differently.
What if we turned that situation into a learning experience for other event organizers at the very beginning of their planning process?
N!P : How would you say the space affected the development of Words, how it’s grown, or how it’s taken away? What would you look for in a space?
What I’d look for in a space is a space that has not just thought about everybody but included the voice & the experience of everybody.
N!P : How would you describe WOTA to someone who’s never been there?
TFC : I would basically describe it as a reading series curated by the city for the city. We have no idea what’s gonna happen every last Sunday of the month. We have no idea what the poems are, we know the dj and know the style of music he brings, but we have no idea what the vibes are going to be. It’s like a potluck of poetry, everyone brings what they think they need. Then the rest of the city just vibes and just listens.
N!P : I like how for a lot of the things you work on, it seems you let it breathe into itself to exist and interact with it. You’re there not only to guide, but be guided.
TFC : Exactly.
N!P : That’s awesome.
TFC : Yeah, Words on the Ave is not mine. It was something that was shown to me that needed to be here. And I just facilitate the creation, and, you know, just try to hold space for it in whatever way, and use the resources that are given to me to do that.
And I think that’s like an ancient tool, right? Using what’s given to you to create beauty, or create space.
N!P : Are there any questions you wish I’d asked thru this process? Ideas you’d like to explore that I didn’t bring up, or didn’t think to?
TFC : I think that a lot of times, I’m in the space where I’m really identifying—I’m really finding out who I am. I think at 28 years old, I wish maybe at interviews I’d hear more like, “what are your pronouns?” Cause that’s language that we use with Words on the Ave. At the beginning of every huddle, before every event, we go around and have everyone say their name, but more importantly we have everyone say their pronoun. And I think that by bringing that into the space,we know that change will happen there when that starts to become common in regular language. We got that suggestion from youth on the mic a few years ago.
N!P : We’ve talked a lot about what you’re working on, but to wrap up, would you mind sharing any particular projects that you’ve got going on, in / outside of WOTA, or any short / long term goals?
TFC : I’m working on listening. Better. *chuckles*
& I’m working on being more gentle on myself. & yeah. Those things—I know, I know you’re talking about books & things like that, but those are projects in themselves.
&… Yeah. I’m working on letting the wind in and letting the words take me where they want to. Staying light. Being free spirited and curious and excited about poetry.
But otherwise, I’m doing a TED Talk Conference. That’s coming up on January 14th. The theme is Imagine. It still feels unbelievable. I really visualized me doing a TED one of these days and it’s amazing to see it here.
& I would like a book. I’m just gonna throw that into the universe.
I would like a book & a band.
read their poems “Ode To The Sky Resting Above Galusha Hill Farm” + “The First (dedicated to O.)” in our 13th Issue of Fuck Art, Let’s Dance