Trace DePass IN CONVERSATION WITH Mary McLaughlin Slechta
Trace DePass was the 2016 Teen Poet Laureate for the Borough of Queens, New York. He received a National Gold Medal from Scholastic for his writing portfolio “Black Boyhood” wherein one piece was published in Scholastic’s The Best Teen of Writing of 2015. He is interested in how his poetry functions when applied outside the page. Find Trace's poetry in the great weather for MEDIA anthology, The Other Side of Violet.
Mary McLaughlin Slechta: Hi Trace. Congratulations on the publication of your poem "[requiem] for the boy telling of the time his body was not his." It appears in our latest anthology The Other Side of Violet. Framed as a conversation, the poem makes some passionate statements about intimacy...about having sex for the first time, the sensation of losing one's self in the giving. Please tell us what you can about the creation of this amazing poem.
Trace DePass: A lot of my work buds from empathy, or at least an inquiry aimed at thoughts and feelings I may have internalized only to then rediscover this “here” as a common ground. It’s a poem about the space between me and another young man, his story and mine. You might say it mentions sex but not consent and you would be onto something. The poem, "[requiem] for the boy telling of the time his body was not his" is a conversation between a long-time friend and myself, and also the first poem in my forthcoming book, self-portrait as the space between us. I wrote it with the intent to open up a conversation around young black men and their response to trauma, specifically sexual assault. The poem is for black boys who feel as though living inside their own body is an inaudible, unintelligible cage.
MMS: Your portfolio "Black Boyhood" earned a National Gold Medal from Scholastic while you were in high school. What was that experience like? Did it change your perception of yourself as a poet?
TD: That year, at the National level, was actually judged by Nikki Giovanni and Terrance Hayes. So, of course I was overjoyed; the experience allowed me to think I can actually craft a poem. I can be musical, funny, reclaiming, myself, and still win. Out of 11,000 portfolio submissions, mine was in the Top 8. After receiving an award at the National level, I became a part of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers; the experience isn’t singular, or one-off. The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards haven't given me just their largest award, a National Gold Medal for a portfolio, it changed my life. For a while I even had a publicist. I was on the radio with NPR for the talk show “The Takeaway.” I was in their Best Teen Writing of 2015 Anthology and served as the editor of their Best Teen Writing of 2017. Working with Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, reading and editing the work of the brilliant young people who apply, has made me a better poet.
MMS: From what I've read about your work, a part of your mission is to use poetry to communicate and support issues that are important to young people of color. What do you think are the most important issues they face and how can poetry help?
TD: Perhaps this might be a better question for President Obama or something. It’s so big. I'm a black cis-male and thus I can somewhat speak on behalf of cis-black men. However, I'm more interested in speaking to them. I do think we need more access to art, theater, and better books (by authors of color), in schools predominantly of color. However, I'm interested in black men acknowledging their power as well as privilege and any allegorical work which might derive from any inquiry of that. Writing poetry is, of course, a way of processing emotions. But, what happens when we view systems as cages and us as not animals but real, living human bodies perceived like that of neglected animals? I like poetry with few easy answers, mostly just the turbine of questions. I think they inherently spark discourse and if we can get this discourse popping outside the classroom, the casual readers and thinkers and writers might talk about what the poem can do rather than just its “bars.”
MMS: You serve as a mentor in many different capacities. Please describe the kind of work you do as a mentor in New York City and also tell us which artists help sustain your spirit.
TD: I’ve taught drum & poetry workshops at Rikers Island, The Langston Hughes House, and several schools across Queens. I have to get kids to think they can write poems before they can actually write. I encourage them to participate and ask questions. Then, I introduce them to different forms as a challenge. One exercise in empathy I came up with was to anthropomorphize an animal in a zoo or a cage, characterize them similarly to yourself as the writer, and write about yourself but from their eyes and their relationship to the given space (if that makes sense). The whimsy and the becoming which resides inside a child’s writing brings me joy and sustains me. I also love the look on a person’s face when they happen upon a book like Olio by Tyehimba Jess and discover what a contrapuntal poem is.
MMS: Along with other poets from Urban Word NYC, you appear in a short, online film based on Cynthia Manick's poem "Things I Carry Into the World." How did this project come about and will there be more?
TD: This was idea brought together by Pat Heywood & Jamil McGinnis, casted by Shannon Matesky, Safiya Martinez, Adam Falkner & other good folks at Urban Word NYC. We each helped direct our individual poetry which came out of Things I Carry Into the World. The idea for my video was for the lens of the camera to be a younger version of myself looking at me now. The individual videos aren't but if you follow on Instagram or Twitter @southsidepoems then I can keep you posted!
MMS: Thanks, Trace. Is there anything else you'd like to share about your work or upcoming projects?
TD: My name is Trace Howard DePass. I'm a percussionist, playwright, beat-boxer, and teaching poet from South Jamaica, Queens (who is looking to fill up his 2018 calendar with work). Right now, I’m working on my curriculum centered around drums, poetry, and how they have continuously built on each other for centuries! My debut book of poems, self-portrait as the space between us, will be out this Spring 2018! Thank you, great weather for MEDIA!
"[requiem] for the boy telling of the time his body was not his" by Trace DePass can be found in The Other Side of Violet (great weather for MEDIA, 2017).
Poetry and prose submissions for great weather for MEDIA anthologies are open October 15 to January 15.