Tatyana Brown on Being a Few Miles Ahead of Successful
Tatyana Brown is the founding Captain of The Lit Slam, a San Francisco-based, live-audience curated literary show and poetry journal. She ranked 4th at the 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam and has toured North America ever since, facilitating workshops and performing at venues for storytelling and poetry. Her work has appeared on NPR’s storytelling show, Snap Judgment, and she holds the distinct honor of winning the longest consecutive string of XXX Haiku Deathmatch Championships at Oakland’s Tourettes Without Regrets.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them … ?
Some or all of the following: I publish an annual poetry journal based on live audience responses to a monthly reading series (which I also curate and produce). I tour all over the country performing my own poetry, teaching writing/performance workshops, and giving talks on subjects ranging from slam as a contemporary American literary tradition to how to tell ethical dirty jokes to practical methods for interrupting and dismantling systemic oppression in real time. I write essays about creativity, privilege, and my experiences as a working class queer progressive artist. I talk about my feelings way more than the average citizen and am perpetually annoyed with my inability to eat gluten. I climb on things I shouldn’t. Sometimes I cry in public. I collect bad ideas and silly hats with a near professional level of expertise.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Sleeping for more than four hours at a clip. My brain just doesn’t know how to turn off. Also, doing one thing at a time, taking little bites, and committing to a superlative anything. I’ve heard that learning to meditate would help with all that or whatever. I’m not sure I buy it.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I consider myself profoundly lucky. I get up in the morning and make art/study/teach/facilitate other people’s creativity/tinker with big ideas until I pass out. My community is full of people and projects that excite and inspire me, focused on work I feel grateful to know about (let alone participate in). Sometimes it’s grueling and sometimes I’m nervous about money (hello, no health insurance!). Sometimes (okay, pretty much all the time) I find myself doubting whether or not I’m talented or tenacious enough to cut it at what I do. But when I’m listening to my gut and really paying attention, I can’t ignore my own good luck. And I get to face my insecurities with a sense of hope, possibility, gratitude, and purpose. That puts me a few miles ahead of “successful” by any measurement I care to use — and in a way that I simply can’t claim was entirely my own doing. I might as well have won the lottery with this life.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I love my family pretty fiercely (even when we’re terribly fucked up), but I’ve got to say my favorite ancestor is Herschel of Ostropol. He’s a Jewish folklore character — a trickster figure who often serves as Robin Hood in his small village. That’s my kind of hero.
(This is to say: he was German, but my grandfather, Harry Goldschmidt, was also Hershel of Ostropol in the flesh. That’s where I get it, I think.)
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I wanted to either be a writer or the first female President of the United States. Pretty sure I ended up making the right choice. I get to celebrate my scandals this way, anyhow.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I’m pretty addicted to my phone (all the people I love are in there!), so I imagine by the end of a week without it I’d have carved a surrogate out of a pinecone or something.
Just kidding. I would sleep under the stars and yell into canyons and huck rocks across ponds and get absolutely covered in mud and just bake under the sun in it until it was the only thing I could smell. I would lose exactly one sock. I would build fires and poke anthills and accidentally eat at least one spider. I would get very cold and sunburnt, and I would lose my voice singing in the dark. Feeling about due for a visit with the mountains right now, actually.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I have done. It was quite butch. I’ll let you think about that.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
I’m kind of not looking right now on purpose. Enough. Let’s say enough, yeah?
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
I want to see my grandkids feeling embarrassed by my bigotry because shit’s advancing too quickly for me to keep up. I want someone to invent the “Lactaid” equivalent of a gluten pill so I can eat bagels again without feeling like I’m being punched in the stomach. I wouldn’t say no to nanotechnology making me able to fly and not be blind and live forever. If neuroscientists figured out how to make it possible for me to know what it feels like to live inside different bodies (what it feels like to have sex and eat and pee as another human, for example), that would be neat. I want a queer, nonmonogamous President of the United States. Is that too much to ask?
What are you working on right now?
I just got back from the Women of the World Poetry Slam in Minneapolis, where The Lit Slam used audience curation to select poems for publication in an ebook called “Alight: The Best Written Poems of WoWPS 2013,” which will be free and is due out in April. Now I’ve got to edit the book together. After that’s done, I’m hitting the road again for some university/college shows to round out my Spring (home in time for The Lit Slam in April (4/15) and May (5/20) as well). While I’m doing all that, I’m writing what appears to be my third chapbook of poetry, brushing up on my Jewish folklore, and learning to edit video. Oh, and I’m hashing out a few articles. And not sleeping much.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
One of my favorite flash fiction forms is exactly 50 words long (I call them “mini-sagas”). For any 50 words to be considered a mini-saga, it’s got to have some primary character for the audience to care about, and some kind of change over the course of the story. Believe it or not, I started my adult writing career by forcing myself to write one every day. Sorta hard to imagine me originating in any kind of tradition that values brevity, isn’t it?
What are some of your favorite smells?
Garlic sautéing in butter, coconut anything (so long as it’s not too sweet), cold air and car exhaust, Old Spice on someone who’s been sweating in the sun, sunscreen, old books (obviously) and libraries, a woodshop where the power saw is in use, new paint, various people I love when they’re asleep, my hiking pack on the first night outdoors, dirt, and thunderstorms (also if I had it my way, the Bay should have more of those).