Sandra Jean-Pierre is a Miami-based spoken word poet and author of several self-published e-books of short fiction. An avid amateur photographer and afghan maker, her exploits and insights can be found on her website: www.sandrajeanpierre.com.
This week on the Middle Gray Mag blog, Sandra talked to us about the difference between working in prose and working in poetry, about knowing yourself and about choosing one's words wisely.
Your work feels very personal, yet it is presented with such a wonderful touch of artistic restraint. How do you go about using a particular writing style to present personal stories?
Umm... I think the stories step forward with a voice. If that makes sense. Some of my stories are very frank and so my style for that story would be as clean and unencumbered as possible. Other stories are emotional, so I try to write in a style that honors that emotion. The stories exist on their own, my task is to bring them to light for others to experience as well.
We featured both a nonfiction piece and a poem by you in our first issue. Do you have a preference when it comes to genre? How do you approach each genre as you sit down to write and revise?
I prefer poetry. Because it is so much of a challenge to fit as much feeling into as few words as possible that on the onset, I’m presented with choosing my words wisely. Which makes me consider what I want the poem to be and not be, where I want the reader to go, how I want the reader to feel, etc... It’s like composing that one delicious bite of food - everything on that spoon has to be there for a reason, to contribute in a bigger way to the experience of what you want the recipient to enjoy. Poetry to me is the same but with words. That gets me excited to see what I can come up with and if I’ll be able to execute it properly. By properly, I mean in a way that honors what I want or need to say.
I haven’t been a fan of prose because I have to find so many more words to express what I am writing. I struggle with it sometimes. I always thought that I wasn’t very good at it. But those who enjoy my prose tell me otherwise. So I have to believe them.
My approach to writing poetry or prose is the same: I spend days examining the emotion and intent behind what I want to write before I ever sit down to write word one. If I am unclear about either emotion or intent, then I keep mulling it over until I see exactly where/how I want to approach my subject matter.
Once I feel like I can put it down in words, then I sit and write. It’s like the piece (poetry or prose) is a formless entity while it’s in my mind and the words I put down on the paper are its bones and skin and demeanor, attitude. After I write, I generally put it away for a few days, then I’ll pass it by a proofreader if it is a piece of prose or just give it a once or twice over if it is a poem.
I try to make my pieces strong, so they can stand on their own. They’re like children, gotta make them tough, so they can defend themselves because you won’t always be around to protect them. And you can‘t feel bad if someone doesn’t like what you wrote. Everything is not for everyone. Being part of a Spoken Word troupe (Lip, Tongue & Ear 2001-2005, currently disbanded) helped me to not be shy about the things that I write or present. So I thank them for that.
How much responsibility do you think writers have to explore themselves as people before they work on their craft?
You have to write what you know. And in order to know, you need to examine yourself, your experiences. No matter how painful or terrible it may feel. I think really connecting with that lesson within a particular situation in your life pushes you to be authentic, which opens you to write from a place of knowing and understanding, which ultimately allows your readers to connect to you.
So know yourself, which will make your writing better. And you don’t have to know “all” about yourself before you begin writing. We are ever growing and changing beings, so waiting until you’ve figured yourself out, isn’t realistic. Start with one something and it will spread to other things. For example, my early poetry was about “The Struggle” of being under-employed and having to deal with social services that weren’t really there to help you succeed. Now my pieces are more about emotions and memories. I kept writing through it all, as I learned more and more about myself.
Who would you say are your main literary influences? Why?
Langston Hughes was the poet who started me down my poetry path. I remember being a high school senior and having to do a report about a literary figure. Being the semi-militant that I was in my mind, I set out to research someone black. Being also the lazy high schooler that I was, I chose poetry because I could read a bunch of poems and not have to read a tome before I was able to do my report. But when I read Langston’s Jive:
That's the way I stay alive.
as I live and learn,
Dig and be dug
...my brain felt lit up like a pinball machine. It’s like I heard the jazz notes, I felt the rhythm. The line breaks captivated me. ‘You could do that?’ I remember saying out loud when I read this piece over and over. It was a piece of art on the page and on my tongue. I was in awe that black words on white paper, written so many years ago by someone I never met, could still jump off the page and dance in my imagination like it did. To this day, I am a devout Langston Hughes lover.
I try to write like Langston so that my words too, in 50 years will still carry the same emotion and spirit as when I wrote it. And maybe a lazy, militant high schooler can write a report about me.
What aspirations do you have when it comes to your work? What would you like to accomplish as a writer?
I hope my work inspires, motivates, stirs the emotions, makes people think, makes them sad, makes them determined, makes them mindful. As a writer I want my stories to be there, like a mid-wife, for someone else who may be going through something similar. That they know that they will make it, cause I did. And that it’s okay in the end.
How much has the education you have received helped you as a writer?
I think my education helped to expose me to structure. Though I write with emotion, if I didn’t write along with discipline, I wouldn’t write quite as much as I do. Education makes you disciplined. My education has also exposed me to different authors, ideas, conventions that on my own, I probably wouldn’t have found. So, umm, go to school.
What social or cultural aspects would you like to see more prominently featured in today's literary magazines and journals?
I’d like to see more Haitian American voices. We’re out there, our struggle with not being Haitian enough for the Haitian people, yet not being American enough for American people is real. I’d like to hear more stories about that. As well as stories about disabled people that isn’t about pity or how much of a disadvantage being disabled is. I am a strong disabled person and there is nothing pity-worthy about me. I haven’t found a way to write those stories with balance, so they’re not written yet.
What would you say to readers who enjoyed your Middle Gray work and would like to see more from you?
Some of my better/personal writings can be found on my website www.sandrajeanpierre.com.
There are some small ebooks available, as well as my blog posts.