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2005 Writers Forum
Brenda Givens ~ with curator John Mifsud

Brenda Givens is a poet, storyteller and writer. Born in Ruislip, England, she has spent the majority of her life in the Northwest and currently lives in Everett, Washington. Brenda has spent many years presenting her work in a wide range of venues including Barnes and Nobel Bookstores, the University of Washington, Seattle Children’s Museum, Seattle Folk Life Festival, 3rd Place Books, Auntie’s Bookstore, and the Tacoma, Olympia and Federal Way Public Libraries. Her writing has been published in Las Cruces Poets and Writers Magazine, Brothers and Others (an anthology of African American women writing about African American men), the Seattle City Council Session, Pralines and Cream (a chap book) and the Tacoma Literary Guild publications. Brenda is also a storyteller, retelling the traditional stories of Anansi the Spider from Africa, and the Brer Rabbit stories of the American South. Her latest work in progress, a novel, is currently under submission. Brenda Givens photo
photo credit:
dean wong
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Read and listen to writings by Brenda Givens
Jump to excerpts from this conversation:
Personal Background Conflict (2) Closure (2) Cross-Culture
Current Writing Family/Relationships (2) Inspiration Place
Writing Impetus Writing Habits Excerpt Discussion Healing
JM

Tell us a little bit about your background, and maybe how you came to writing.
BG





Well, I started writing as a child. As a matter of fact I have an old diary of mine that I look at occasionally that I started probably when I was eleven or twelve years old. And so I think I just fell in love with writing when I was a child, and have done it ever since. It's just been a part of the fabric of my life, through high school and into being a mother, and working, and every part of my life.
JM

So, what is the experience of writing like for you? I mean, what are the circumstances of it?
BG











It's a little bit of everything. I sometimes will have a word that pops in my head, or I'll hear a word, and suddenly it's like that word just kind of takes root, and words start coming around it. Or sometimes it's an idea, and I sit with the idea for a while, and then it becomes a story or it becomes a feeling, an emotion I've got to express on paper. For me, writing is just as natural as breathing. I can hear a word or I can have an idea that just begins to flourish in my head, and I can't do anything but write it down. I've been told by many, many people, those close to me and those not so close to me, that I express myself much better on the page than I do with them. So I think my emotions just kind of sit in my fingers and they become a part of my poems or my novel or whatever I'm working on at the time.
Writing Habits

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When the creative process starts, I start to write things down. There are times for me that a poem can come out whole. And it surprises me, and I wonder where it came from. It is a process that I'm in awe of, because I don't know where it comes from. And there are other times where it may take me a month or two months-I just agonize over a poem. I know what I want in the end, and I'll work on a sentence and it won't be the right sentence or it won't be the right thought or the right feeling. So, I can't say that I have any set way. I wish they all came out whole, because when they do it's amazing. I just look at those things and I go, "Wow, that was wonderful." But then the next two or three poems will take what seems like forever.
JM


A lot of your subjects in your poetry have to do with different aspects of your identity. So, tell us a little bit about where you're from, and where this all started for you.
BG

















I grew up in a family with six siblings. I have three older and three younger. So for me, my identity was pretty jumbled, because I got lost in all the activity of home life, and always felt like I was the fourth girl. Not just the fourth one, but the fourth girl. My mother had four girls before she had the boys, so…That was, for me, a time growing up where I felt like I was kind of lost. And when I wrote I felt like I was writing things that maybe I couldn't say out loud, or that people weren't hearing. I think that's where my writing started. As far as the journals that I've written, I was able to express myself and express my feelings. And my poetry, I think, has a lot to do with just expressing who I am, and having that feeling that kind of starts in the heart and flows outward, so that it becomes a part of me. I think every word that I write is a part of me. As I write those words, sometimes I try to take on a different character, I'll try to see inside someone else, but it's still a part of me. And I think that's what's so fun, and what's so delightful, and what's so complete about writing, because I can take on that sense of someone else, yet still have myself whole in it.
JM



I certainly experience that in particular in your poem "Dust Storm," because it's about James Byrd, and that experience in Texas, and yet it ignites something very personal for you. Would you read that one for us, and then maybe we can talk about it a bit?
BG






This poem I wrote after I read articles in the paper about what happened to James Byrd, Jr., when he was dragged through the streets in Texas. And I was just astounded that this could happen in the present day, that they had lynchings that still occurred and that it happened in a place I had never heard of, and yet these people were people like me. And when I was reading the article it talked about how these people were aghast, themselves.
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JM



That's a powerful poem, and I'm wondering about what it was you were experiencing when you got this news. You had talked earlier about how sometimes an inspiration demands voice from you. What happened here?
BG















It took a while for me to write this poem, probably longer than most of my poems. I did a lot of research into what happened this night, and I wanted to do justice to James Byrd. I wanted to make it understood what exactly happened the night that he was killed, and just how horrific it was. So, in the process of looking at all the different articles in the paper, and going online and kind of searching through the different reactions of the world, I just spent some time thinking about the man, James Byrd. And thinking what he might have felt that night. And the emotion of all of that drove me to put these words down on paper. And I feel like, in the process of doing that, it made me understand what happened that night. I think that when you look at what happened, and you look at the way the world reacted, it made me feel good that the world reacted the way that it did, which was to quickly put these men away. And the town of Jasper was just aghast, so I felt good about that. But the fact that it happened was what was horrific.
JM

What are you hoping, how will Jack Straw encourage your endeavor?
BG










I have set myself a goal of writing a certain amount of poems, and I have something in these poems that I'm going to reach for. I'm writing poems that are specifically around this area, the Pacific Northwest, and I want to make sure that I include a part of the Pacific Northwest in my writing. So whether it's the name of a town or whether it's Mt. Rainier, or whatever it is that's around me-physically-I want to be able to include that in each of my poems. So that in itself is a challenge. And I also want to be able to include a part of myself in each of the poems. So, it's kind of a double rule that I have for each one, and I'd like to be able to write at least two a month. So that's my challenge.
JM

It seems to me that you have a poem that takes place right in your own neighborhood. What was that about?
BG



This poem was an event that actually took place in my neighborhood. I can't say that it was a positive event, however, it was one that struck me as something that needed to be told, and something that I could put down in a way that was very simple and to the point.
Place

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<reading follows: "Welcome to the Neighborhood">
JM



You know it didn't occur to me before this evening that there's a parallel there between those two poems that you just wrote, that there's a common thread. Did you experience that when you were writing them?
BG









I think that my life is an experience of that common thread for any person of color who is growing up in the US, and dealing with the things that we deal with as far as just the everyday differences, and the way that the law looks at things, and the way that we are approached in life just as a minority. I think it comes through whenever we are together. I think of my family when we get together-we talk about things, and we talk about the way that we're treated. We talk about the everyday nuances that happen in our life, that may not happen to other people. And I think that "Duststorm" and "Welcome to the Neighborhood" both exemplify the darker side.
JM




It also requires some level of perspective. The one experience is your own, and the other experience really touched you, but it is speaking to a larger picture than just your own personal experience. I appreciate that perspective very much in your writing. So tell us about this novel. What's it called, what's it about?
BG














I have a novel that I'm working on, that's finished, and I have sent it off to agents all over the US. Right now the working title is called In the Company of His Sisters. And it's a story of a family, a family of six daughters and one son. And the six daughters come first, and then the son comes. And, the father…it's his reaction to this son, and it's the reaction of all the girls to their brother, and it's the reaction of the mother to her son. The first half of the book is about all of the reactions. You don't ever meet the son until the second half of the book, and then it's his story. But it's a story that has a lot of nuances, a lot of different feelings, and the identity of each of these girls, because of this son that comes into the family-their relationship with the father and their relationship with the mother, and their relationships with each other-how they feel because the son has been put on a pedestal, and they each have reacted to it in a different way. So it's their story.
JM And what inspired you to write this one?
BG







Well, the fact that I do have four sisters and two brothers. And I thought about what it would feel like to be the only sibling in one gender, and what it would feel like in a family. I took the feelings of a son because usually sons are elevated in families. Not as much anymore, but in the past it was the son who carried on the name, and the son who went out and took the family business. And so, it was more of an idea of, "What would it feel like? What would it feel like to each family member, and how would they react to it?"
JM






So, is it safe to say that there's a part of your own personal involvement with your material that allows for some resolution for yourself? I know when I write, a lot of it is digging up some of my history-I'm more focused on memoir-but I think of it more as a healing process, because when I finally have that chapter of my life on paper it seems like it doesn't haunt me as much, because I've captured it, in a way. Is that similar for you?
BG







I think that's a perfect way of putting it. I know that, in the daily course of life, if I come up against something that is emotionally disturbing to me, like doing "Duststorm," I usually write about it, because then I can sort it out. Even something that's elating, or passionate, or anything that has a strong emotional feeling to it, I feel that if I put it down, if I capture, if I get that in writing, I feel that I can go back to it, I can remember it, and I can put those things away.
Impetus,
Closure,
Healing

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JM Will you read another poem for us?
BG This is a poem that is also a part of me. And it's called "Bi."
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