Honesty is a Difficult Exercise: An Interview with Savon Bartley

The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker contributor Savon Bartley chats with Thomas Fucaloro.


Savon Bartley is a North Chicago born poet, writer, and Oreo cookie connoisseur. Known for his lyricism and ability to command a crowd, he has worked with HBO Def Poets, United Nation officials, and Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award winners. Savon's work is a reflection of his experiences with identity, mental illness, social justice, and what it means to be a man who is better than his father.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches look like the cracks in Grannie’s hands caused by her memory lapses which collapses the strawberry fabric of time rapidly unraveling behind her.

- Savon Bartley, Extract from "PB&J"

TF:  Your imagery is so vivid in "PB&J" - the poem that appears in The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker. Do you consider yourself a visual writer? Can you give us some tips on how you are so visual? 

SB:  I've never thought about that actually. I don't think I would call myself a visual writer but if others decide to label me that I’ll be more than happy to take the title. Recently I've been reading a lot more. Not just poems. Fiction, essays, anything I might find interesting. I see what others are doing or not doing and I put my spin on it. I write the way I would want to read if someone else was writing what I wrote, If that makes sense. I like imagery, so I read imagery, which then translates into my writing.

TF:  You have some really elegant lines in this such as It's not just a sandwich. It's a moment. What is your editing process like? How long does it take for you to get to the bones of this poem and how do you cut off the crusts?

SB:  One technique I use is writing out a very deliberate line, saying exactly what I want to say, then rewrite it piece by piece, as many different ways as I can think of. Sometimes I go through most of a poem doing that. The key for me is walking away sometimes. I'll write, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, walk away, come back to it next week, edit edit edit, etc. The process can be excruciating if I get in my head about it but the end results are usually moments I'm happy with.

TF: I know you are a spoken word poet. How do you get the poem to sing on the page? Is it difficult to separate your performance voice from your page voice?

SB:  I don't think there’s much of a difference. The page vs stage war always sounded like ego to me. I have a theater background so yes, I enjoy the stage but I am also a writer and the page is an equally enjoyable platform. Both have the ability to allow very similar and very different miracles to occur. When we talk about voice though, both also share a particular vulnerability. When I say a poem out loud, my physical voice has control over how the words are received. When a poem lives on a page I'm giving away that control. Same thing the other way. My line breaks and grammar are all deliberate so it can be read the way I want it to be. If I get that poem published and they don't honor the format or someone else reads it without taking the beats I put in, it's uncomfortable for me. So I wouldn't say it's difficult to separate my voice, I'd say it's hard to give it away.

TF:   I think poetry, regardless of what scene you are connected to, is going through some big changes. What's your philosophy on the current state of the poetry scene?

SB:  From where I'm standing, I see poetry is going through a paradigm shift. I look at the greats that came before me and then I look at my peers and I'm in a constant state of awe. There are some extremely talented individuals across the world, who I'm honored to call friends, colleagues, and students, that are producing amazing work that is going to change the way everyone looks at poetry. It's really just a waiting game. I'm in a privileged position because I'm in the trenches with these folk so I get to see the creation process. But when the world catches a whiff of what's happening it’s going to stick to their ribs. The art form is headed in a brave new direction and I'm excited for it.

TF:  Is poetry something that heals you? How do you allow yourself to be so vulnerable? We live in a world of guarded emotions...how are you able to access that rainbow and show us all the colors?

SB: I wouldn't say poetry heals me. I use it as a tool more than a cure. Honesty is a difficult exercise. I don't even have a real answer as to how to not be guarded. I think I still am. There are poems about things in my life that I may never write or I won't want to write about because I haven't reached a point where I'm comfortable talking about it yet. I'm also hyper aware of how others would view me if they knew the truth. Images and perceptions are real things. It's frightening showing the ugly sides of yourself. I think vulnerability goes hand in hand with growth. I believe you grow in and out of honesty. So I wait it out.


Submissions for great weather for MEDIA’s anthologies are open October 15  to January 15.

The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker is a fearless and dynamic collection of contemporary poetry and short fiction by established and emerging writers. This is essential reading for everyone looking for the innovative, the reflective, and the fearless.  The anthology also contains an interview with musician Thurston Moore.