Up the Staircase Quarterly: You have a strong background in slam poetry, but what was your first significant literary encounter—was it another slam poet's performance, or did you arrive at slam later? How did this experience inspire you, or shape you, into the writer you have become?
Siaara Freeman: I was around seven years old and I was a nosy seven --- surrounded by adults in a very adult world, and I was offered books to preoccupy my time. I remember in particular picking up my father's Donald Goines novel, I think the cover got me--- it was a young black girl. First time I had seen a young black girl on the cover of an adult novel, so I was immediately invested. When I turned the first page, the curse words stood out bright and welcoming like ENTER signs and down that rabbit hole I went. Ok, so seven and skim reading a Donald Goines novel, specifically “Black Girl Lost” (which feels more impactful each time I revisit that memory).
I know it forced me to examine the world I lived in, as opposed to a fictitious one I dwelled in often. Granted the world I lived in was not as outright scary as the one Goines painted – it was similar more often than the world of my beloved Babysitters Club or my Bible stories, or the Greek and Egyptian myths I would read in my older sister's textbooks.
---and in truth I think from that point on I watched my world with a keener eye. I began to look for the community and the magic and the holy in my world. I looked for the stories, for the people who were myth-making worthy. I learned the difference between the red of Kool-Aid and the red of blood. To tune into the proper image I wanted to display - to explain the hood in all of its glorious greys--
I remember asking my father: did the girl on the book write this herself?
And him telling me: No, a man named Donald wrote it for her. I remember thinking I don’t need Donald to write it for me. It’s probably a lot of stuff he did not say right or stuff he missed.
I realized things did not have to be written one way or another, that genres could be mixed, that you could see the same thing through different lenses. I never limit myself to how I tell a story. I still think curse words are fucking fantastic.
“has slam saved my ass in financial situations? absolutely. did it introduce me to who i was and wanted to be? absolutely? do i need it? no can i live without it? yes am i competitive? yes are there other things to compete in? yes would i miss it? for sure do i miss things i live without every day? damn right”
If you were to never compete in a slam poetry event again, what would you miss? What have you taken away from your experiences competing?
SF: To be clear, I have only slammed in group slams, so :Nats, Rustbelt, etc., and local indie slams, never the individual slams (iwps or wowps), so when I say I would miss things, I think I would mostly miss being on a team with other people doing what I love who are also doing what they love and we are like minded in a goal. I am a Slytherin. I like goals and I like squads. I’d miss that. I'd probably go back to doing beauty pageants or something, maybe acting? Thespian competitions? – idk.
So many good experiences. I learned how to lose at things and how to win at things in general, and oh wow, was I terrible at all of that when I started around 14. I learned how to fight for something other than myself, I learned to process empathy on a grand scale, I learned how to identify misogyny and prejudice in myself and others, and it’s really been a wild ride.
UtSQ: You are helping coach the 2017 Detroit Youth Slam Team. How did you get involved in coaching? What has your experience been like with the team? What advice would you give to young writers who are interested in getting involved with slam communities in their area?
SF: OMG. THEY ARE MY FAVORITE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW. LIKE WOW. I'M EMOTIONAL THINKING ABOUT IT, LIKE I WAS GONNA BRING THEM UP, BUT YOU ALREADY OUT HERE ASKING ME BOUT THE THINGS I WANT TO TALK ABOUT THANK YOU SO MUCH.
So, one of my best friends, Justin Rogers, who is quite lit, works for a program called InsideOut – here is a brief statement from their website on what they do:
iO is a nationally recognized hub of creativity for K-12 students in Detroit who are curious about exploring their worlds through the power of poetry. Since 1995, iO has helped to amplify the voices of thousands of students by dispatching established and emerging poets and writers into classrooms. The writers conduct creative workshops and work side-by-side with students over the course of the year, helping them to create poems, stories, artwork and stage-ready performance pieces. Students contribute to their school’s literary journal, which is published and presented by iO at the end of each year during in-school galas.
ISNT THAT AMAZING???
I had done a bit of work with InsideOut before (workshops/performances) and Justin had coached the previous year and they were looking for a new coach. I was a potential prospect and was offered the job and JUMPED AT IT.
They are truly, honestly some of the best people to ever happen to me. Can I say their names real quick? Shout out to: YaKuza, Ashley, LaShawn, Wes, Damon, Eldric, Nae & Imani.
They really make me think and re-think how I view the world. I am so much more open to joy and being wrong since I met them - so healthy!!! I’m teaching them lessons I would’ve liked to learn sooner and not the hardest of ways like: be great, absolutely, but make space for others to be great with you. And write the stories that are important to you and not everyone else. I would tell other youth poets the same.
UtSQ: You recently founded Wusgood Mag which publishes a wide variety of content, including poetry, interviews, art, and essays written by and for “artists who aren’t visible in the mainstream, urban artists, & artists who desire to find a home that refuse to entertain cultural or artistic appropriation.” What inspired you to create this space? What are your hopes for Wusgood’s future? What kind of work are you seeking?
SF: I think the same memory that’s been inspiring me all this time, that the hood can be told so one-sided. Often is told one-sided. I’m invested in the hood, not only because it’s where I’m from, but I fancy myself a sociologist and it is one of the most complex systems of life. The people are complex, the environments are complex, the truths, the lies, the joys, the sorrows. It’s all complex. I wanted a place where they can be gathered, examined, archived, BY THOSE WHO ACTUALLY LIVED IT OR SEEN IT FIRSTHAND. It’s so many people, mainly white people, and POC who have never been to the hood who have a false set of ideas, I mean to destroy them and replace them with realistic art.
I’m seeking urban stories by POC, who are often the center of these stories. I seek whatever is true and honest and beautiful or devastating or whatever gets them to sleep at night or whatever wakes them up that next morning, cus I hope it does the same for whoever reads it. I’d like to turn Wusgood into a network, an entire community of urban artists, where urban artists can profit from and reach acclaim via urban art.
UtSQ: Additionally, which other journals do you intend Wusgood Mag to be in conversation with (or against)? Which other spaces do you think our readers should be reading?
SF: I don’t want my contributors to limit themselves. I think knowing your work is a great part of figuring out where to send your work for publication. I’ll say this, as a Black, Queer, Woman, Urban writer, I feel best reading and submitting to magazines like: The Offing, HEART Journal, Tinderbox, HERE at UtSQ, Pinch, BOOAT, Black Napkin. They feel like home.
UtSQ: You have been publishing a series of “Urban Girl” poems in various online and print journals. How did this concept develop for you, writing-wise? Was it your original intent to write these poems in a series, or was it more of a natural progression? In what ways do you hope your poetry will affect readers?
SF: Urban Girl In My Mind Is A Superhero. I feel like urban girls, aka “ghetto girls”, are often discussed as not completely human, and often in the worst ways. I on the other hand as an urban girl, see the inhuman things we are dealt from society daily and view the lot of us as heroes. I write Urban Girl as a behind the scenes view of the super hero that is the ghetto girl. This is her unmasked, her past revealed, her inner most thoughts aloud. It’s what happens when there is no action and just time to reflect on it. I hope people read this and before rolling their eyes, or whispering at the next hood girl they encounter, they instead wonder “Who or what has this woman had to save today?”
UtSQ: You've already done, and are doing, a lot, but do you have any new projects in the pipeline? What’s next for you, professionally and/or personally?
SF: I’m really loving working with kids, and I got an artist residency with Inside Out in the high schools. I might look into doing more artist residencies with youth. I also am working on a few books that I hope to get published. I get to go to Norway this summer (shout to Gibby- they are always looking out for me and I appreciate it!) which is cool, to perform poetry at a festival there. I wish to see more of this world and do poems in the process so if I could find an agent to help make that happen more often it would be – WOW.
UtSQ: Finally, Siaara, if you could have a meal with anyone, dead or alive, real or imaginary, whom would it be, what would you talk about, and what on earth would the two of you eat?
SF: My dad. Everyone who knows me knew it was coming. He was murdered eleven years ago, and I probably would try to fit eleven years' worth of my life into one conversation. And we would be in our kitchen. And my mom and sisters would be there. And we would all cook together. A seafood broil and fried catfish, cus I miss his fried fish and his company and this heavy heart I inherited from him.
Siaara Freeman is 27 years of dramatic entrances and exits & from Cleveland Ohio. She is a 2016 pushcart prize nominee, 2016 best new poet nominee, 2017 bettering american poetry nominee & a 2017 button chapbook contest finalist. She is the founder of online magazine wusgood.black and an editor for Tinderbox Literary Journal. She is the current coach for the Detroit Brave New Voices team. In her spare time she is growing her afro so tall, God mistakes it for a microphone & speaks into her. You can find some of her work in CrabFat Magazine, Rat's Ass Review, and Black Napkin Press.