As July turns to August, and Final Portfolios for the summer mentorship program begin to roll in, we're celebrating by learning a little bit more about poetry mentees Rhiannon McGavin (of California) and Reuben Gelley Newman (of New York). Rhiannon has studied poetry with mentor Keegan Lester, and Reuben has studied poetry with mentor Stephen S. Mills.
Introduce yourselves, if you would, in a rhyming couplet.
Rhiannon McGavin, mentee: Grew up on Shakespeare, and that’s about it, / you’d think I’d be better at iambic.
Reuben Gelley Newman, mentee: I'll frolic through the sexy forest / of life, singing, failing, hoping for rest.
Here’s a deceptively difficult question: What is it that keeps you writing? And what even got you writing in the first place?
RM: I started writing poems to attract the admiration of the cute older boy in my Shakespeare group. This did not work out, as I am still writing. I’m also terrible at keeping journals, so poetry is a way for me to keep track of the weird things that happen to me, albeit processed through a lens of readership. In the last year, I’ve been able to self-publish some dorky booklets and collaborate with my friends on making videos for my poems, and figuring out how poetry can interact with visual art/film/dance/music/smearing paint on ourselves will definitely keep me writing.
RGN: Well, in the theme of the couplet I took way too seriously, writing is sort of about playing, having fun, making things – something like frolicking. Maybe writing can even be freeing or childish in a similar way. But there's another side where it's cathartic, and I think that's where the angsty, somewhat lonely teenage nerd comes in and says, "Let me write down all my weirdness and that will magically solve everything!" Then there's witness: seeing what you don't understand and trying/failing to explain it, wondering how both lovely and horrible things happen in history. Some weird combination of these impulses got me writing and keeps me going, and then of course there's the sheer pleasure of trying/failing to verbalize and conceptualize emotion.
Rhiannon—as some of our readers most likely know, you’re doing so much good work in the realm of spoken word. How do you view the relationship between spoken word and page poetry—do you think the objectives are different, or only the mediums?
RM: Well! In spoken word (whether in a competitive slam or not), the objective is more or less to make yourself understood to a live audience in 3 minutes or less. This encourages comprehensible writing and solid public speaking skills (good things for all writers, frankly), but page poetry has space to be a bit more abstract, since the reader might have more time to digest the information. I’ve found that my best writing looks nice on the page and sounds good spoken aloud, and I think it’s important for poets to have a foot in both areas. I honestly didn’t know that page poetry and spoken word were differentiated until earlier this year, because we’re all jumbled together in Los Angeles and get Guisado’s in a group.
Reuben—as some of our mentees know, much of your work revolves around sexuality and identity. How do you think your understanding of yourself has developed and been challenged by your writing?
RGN: Look at me! Lonely gay teenage nerd who dreams that the world is a sexy forest (whatever that's supposed to mean)! Or least that's the identity that I assume and play with in some of my work, wanting attention, wanting words about sexuality to somehow compensate for being lonely. Words don't compensate, but they let me take myself a little less seriously, particularly when I've experimented with sexual humor. For a guy who's pretty serious in person, the page is freeing, allowing me to joke and play in a way I wouldn't otherwise. Writing about sexuality is also an effort both to complicate and to untangle what it means to be a gay adolescent in the place and time I live in, hopefully helping me to realize some privilege and gain compassion. I've begun to appreciate more fully the complexity of my identity and queerness.
In seven words, describe your most recently penned piece of writing.
RM: Why is everything longer in French? Oy
RGN: I travel, questioning politics, California redwoods, America.
I can’t believe we’re onto the week of assembling Final Portfolios! Alas, it seems the mentorship is coming to a dreaded close. What’s been your favorite part of the mentorship, and what’s one memory or piece of advice that you’ll take with you?
RM: Ice cream with poets!! I went to New York City in July and managed to be in the same places as Peter [LaBerge, co-director] and my mentor Keegan Lester! I was treated to a small ice cream tour of the city—caramel with Peter at Grand Central, and blackberry chocolate chip with Keegan and his gal pal on the west side. Keegan showed me this neat way to flip and dissect old poems for new drafts, and it was fun catching a Bulbasaur at The Strand.
RGN: It's been great meeting other young writers, and I'll always remember the hilariousness of the Facebook group chat, where we have a funny and loving support system. I was also lucky enough to meet my mentor, who's an amazing person and writer. He's helped me concentrate on imagery and revision, advising me to give the reader the unexpected, a lesson I'll keep using to push my writing further.
Rhiannon McGavin is an incoming freshman at UCLA, and a recent graduate of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. She is a current Get Lit Player and performed with the GLP Team at Brave New Voices 2014, where they earned 3rd in the world. She has performed among esteemed activists and celebrities including Maria Shriver, Cornel West, & John Legend, in world-famous venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, The NAACP Awards, & the LA Times Festival of Books. To watch Rhiannon’s PSA videos as well as her “Condensed Shakespeare” series, you can peep her beloved YouTube channel, “The Geeky Blonde.”
Reuben Gelley Newman is a rising senior at The Dalton School in New York City.