Learning Library Segments
Shia BarnettPrimary Use of Medium: Poetry and Screenwriting
Interviewer: Donna Wetegrove
Interview Location: This interview takes place on a late August afternoon with Shia Barnett in her apartment, with neatly stacked boxes as evidence of her recent move.
Interview Date: 8.27.05
Writer: Lori Henika
Shia considers herself a word artist. She describes herself as fascinated by watching how people acquire language and use it to define themselves. Using what she knows and observes, Shia turns her words into poems and screenplays.
How Did You Get Here?
Shia’s mother, a writer and an “undiscovered creative,” allowed Shia and her siblings to be aware of their own artistic interests. Leading by example, Shia’s mother brought out her children’s imaginations; “She was always very animated and never held back her creativity wherever we were.” Shia’s father’s spirituality coupled with her mother’s artsy qualities balanced her environment growing up, and she draws from both of her parents in the work she produces today.
Where Does Your Inspiration Come From?
In addition to her mother’s influence, much of the inspiration for Shia’s writing comes from her own life and experiences. One of her screenwriting instructors, Bonnie Orr, assigned students to carry around a notebook to jot down everything from colors to character traits to feelings. Shia calls this notebook her “wellspring of ideas” and carries one with her everywhere.
“I don’t know that I chose poetry. Poetry really chose me…”
It wasn’t until someone else pointed out Shia’s talent that she ever took writing seriously. When students for whom she wrote poems for homework assignments came to her saying they received an “A” on her poem, she listened to her father’s saying, “Do with what you have.” This statement seems to have had a profound effect on Shia and the way she perceives her own work. She speaks of a poem that came to her in a matter of minutes while she was working as a receptionist at a law firm. She had just gotten braids in her hair, and her colleagues’ reactions inspired the self-identity and empowerment poem, “Sista” chronicling the hairstyles and history of Black women. “Sista” was performed by a group of women at an event headlined by Maya Angelou, and Shia was so struck by the performance that she had to remind herself that they were, in fact, her words.
Does The Material Dictate The Design, Or Does Your Design Idea Dictate How The Material/Medium Is Used?
“It’s a bit of both, but poems kind of write me. It might be a word. It might be a discussion.”
Inspiration lies all around Shia, but she uses certain techniques to solidify her ideas into coherent structures. For screenwriting, she makes a list of numbers representing ten minute segments, and at certain intervals, significant moments need to happen, so she then constructs an order and flow around what those moments will contain. The characters she creates in screenplays have to motivate their own action so the author’s intention does not cloud the characters’ authenticity.
In a similar way, a poem might initially come out as a rant or a list, and Shia has to decide how much to alter the original form. Other times, she can pick a format, like a sonnet, and then build within the confines of the sonnet’s structure. Conveying a persona or voice seems one of writing’s biggest challenges. Shia talks of certain things that she needs to read aloud because it needs to be rooted in her voice, and other poems in which she maneuvers the words on the page so that different people will read it in much the same way.
What Brings Your Medium To Life?
“The rhythm of language, the way I put words together. Even on a page – line breaks, whether it’s down the page and skinny and it’s falling, and you know, it’s going for pages and you don’t know when it’s gonna stop, or if it’s going all the way across the page, or it’s breaking in the middle, or there’s one word out, you know, in the margin. I think that’s what brings it to life on the page. And even what words I choose, how many letters, how many syllables, the texture of the words in your mouth, and they come in my head, I write them down, or I’ll say them aloud as it – and so I have to do several different iterations of the same poem to make sure that the landscape of it is what I need it to be.”
What Tools Are Required In Your Process?
Shia looks for and uses as many resources as she possibly can. Being completely present in her life and in whatever situation she happens to be in helps her come closer to precisely defining her existence. She looks to pop culture, politics, current events, magazines, books, and movies for references, but her most important tools are the people in her life. She chooses to surround herself with people she’d like to emulate in some way, whether the qualities she is drawn to relate to their roles as mothers or teachers or artists. Opening herself up to their influences is fundamental to her writing process. She also mentions a preference for handwriting rather than composing her work on a computer.
Do You Consider It Functional Art?
“Absolutely.” Just because writing isn’t something overtly functional, like a table or a tool, Shia sees people filling themselves up with books and words to be completely functional in aiding people’s self-perception.
Please Speak About The Connections In Your Work.
“I think by its nature, writing is a connection to everything and everybody. Like you have to have it – or being an artist, period, is about having a greater sense of connection to your worlds at large, and so understanding who I am and why I am is what fuels my writing.
The collection she is currently working on, Conversations with Butterflies, reflects upon conversations she has had with her grandmother, her mother, and her daughter. She speaks of, “keeping connection with who you were before you were, and understanding who you will become as she [the person you were before] becomes, and so I absolutely have to realize myself so that my children will be able to fully realize themselves, and the only way to do that is to understand the world, and understand myself in the context of the world.”
Please Summarize Your Entire Process.
Comfort serves a large part in Shia’s writing process- she cozies up in her writing chair wearing pink booties, music playing in the background (Bill Withers is a favorite), and gets to work. She enjoys the music particularly because she recognizes the poems within the songs, and having other poets nearby contributes to her own writing.
Shia’s acceptance into the writing fellowship, Cavecanum, led her to workshops in which she has refined a critical eye for her own work: “I’m finally to a point where I can do a couple of revisions and then go, I think that’s it. Just let it live.”
Do You Recommend What You Do As A Career Choice? … Why?
Shia acknowledges that for young people to discover the artist within themselves at a young age can help them to fully develop their talents. Her advice boils down to: “We only get one life, so live it, live it, live it, and do the thing that you love to do.” She qualifies this statement by saying that if following the desired path of writing does not produce the income that one wants, then turning the wish to write into something more lucrative, like copyediting or technical writing may be a better choice, at least in the short term.
What Tips Might You Have For Someone New To The Medium? … How Best To Develop Their Interest?
“Find people who are doing it. Ask them what their likes and dislikes are, and pay attention to the dislikes. Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. Internships, mentorship is very important.”
“Read, find books about what you want to do. There are tens of hundreds of books about writing. Figure out what genre you want to write in. If you’re a screenwriter, go to the movies. Know what kinds of film you like. Know who your audience is – and this is for any kind of writing – but know who you’re writing for, what you want to write about. Everybody has a story to tell, but make sure you absolutely know how you want to tell it and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
“Waste not, want not.”
Please Point Out Any "Green" Aspects Of Your Process And Your Medium.
For screenwriting, Shia watches many, many movies, and she is not afraid of buying used ones. She often writes on recycled paper and always prints manuscripts on both sides of the page. Her father’s idea of “Do with what you have” arises again in her disinclination to waste.
“Salute to African American Writers Celebration and Tea is an annual celebration of Black writers in and around Central Texas where people can come and hear works of people that they may not have access to.” The first portion relates to the theme of the celebration (fiction, mystery, spoken word), while the second part is full of poetry readings. Gourmet desserts and coffee are served. The celebration is fully funded by local business and more recently by Barnes and Noble and the Writer’s League of Austin. Shia hopes to expand to include workshops to help writers publish.
Please Talk About Making Multiples Of A Creative Effort As A Part Of Your Business.
Writers can get pigeonholed into one kind of writing, one genre, that is then expected of them, and it was gratifying to Shia to hear a famous writer, Walter Mosely, at the Cavecanum workshop talking about how he is taking his writing in a different direction. It made the other students aware that all writers, no matter how well-known, go through the same obstacle of dealing with others’ expectations.
Where Do You See Your Creativity Evolving?
“I really think I’m cultivating a space here now that is fully embracing my art and who I hope to become. Just fueling me with – even the foods I buy [and] all of that, I think, is becoming a better part of Shia the writer and growing me in so many different ways and I think I have a good grasp of language and words and my voice. I think now it’s my life, like that …letting my life really be a reflection of who I have become as a writer is where I’m going now.”
Shia continues, “Look at the person that you are, and look at yourself. I don’t think we look at ourselves enough. Look at yourself in the mirror and learn to love yourself, no matter how acne prone your skin is, no matter how many scars you might have, know who you are, what you look like, love yourself, love yourself – and learn what it means to love. And that doesn’t mean just people pleasing or doing what other people need you to do and want you to do, or giving in to peer pressure or becoming something you’re not. When you sit down and listen to yourself, you know who you are, and there is nobody more powerful than that person, and there’s nobody more inspiring for other people. They’re seeing you be that person. And there’s nothing more beautiful than watching a person who knows themselves, you know. So I think the greatest gift that we are given is ourselves, and once you allow yourself to become yourself, anything is possible.”
Blogging Gateway to Shia: www.groovenbuttafly.blogspot.com
Moviebytes: Academy of American Poets
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