Does This Poem Bring You Joy? A Conversation With Arianne True

by Beverly Aarons

Does this poem bring you joy? Does it move through and speak to your body? Does it make you think and feel something deeply? Arianne True, a Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations poet and experiential educator, has important questions for all poets, both young and old, but especially for the middle-school students at Hugo House’s Scribes summer writing camp. How can the experience of poetry shape how you see yourself and history?

True began her trek into the wilds of poetry when she was just 15 years old. She had always written things, like many teenagers who scribble things in their journals or in the margins of their notebooks.  Poetry was something new and exciting for True but she had her preconceived notions about what poetry was and how she was supposed to interact with it and be impacted by it. But as she traveled deeper into the poetry landscape she began to discover many hidden surprises. 

When I interviewed True, now 28 years old, about her work as a teaching artist and poet, she shared a sense of awe at how poetry could impact the body of the reader. She described her experience reading the poem He Sápa by Layli Long Soldier. “If you want to keep reading the text right side up, like you’ve been taught to read texts, you have to physically rotate the book in a complete circle slowly while you read,” True said. “And that just totally expanded my mind on how poetry can interact with the body. Through the way she wrote she made me have to do a physical action to read her work. And that is so cool.”

True’s journey began as a participant in Scribes of Ingraham, a Hugo House after-school writing program at Ingraham High School in Seattle. That’s where she met her mentor Roberto who helped her discover the pure delight of creating and experiencing poetry. She was inspired by the way Roberto interacted with the writing community, the slam poetry scene, and how he approached teaching the young poets under his stewardship. 

“Roberto was always like very, very supportive but like very, very genuinely. He was excited about everything you did. And his credo is very much,” True interrupted herself to note how he impacted her own teaching style. “And this is how I teach now or at least how I try to, which is that ‘all writing is good writing because the act of writing is fundamentally a good act.’ And he taught from that place. So it’s hard not to get excited and inspired when someone really believes that everything you’re doing is awesome.”

One of the most memorable assignments True received during her time in the Scribes program was purposefully writing something that “intentionally sucked.” It was a surprising task but liberating. True felt freed from the confines of perfectionism that can bind so many beginning writers and stop them from pursuing the craft as a profession or even a hobby. 

“And I was just like, whoa, what?” True’s voice rose. I could almost hear her smiling. “That completely changed how I write and how I think about writing? And that ended up being my favorite poem.”

That experience influenced how True approaches the writing process. She understands that not everything a poet (or any writer) creates will be “good” and it’s a way of writing that she wants to share with her students. 

“I think the traditional workshop environment approaches poetry as a series of problems that need to be fixed. And I find that to be a bit soul crushing.” True said as she discussed her experiences in the mainstream academic poetry world. “ … I think you get so much more when you look at it from a space of possibility. What is possible from this point? And like what are the different ways this can move? Or what are the things that maybe I didn’t intend but what do they have to offer? What do my mistakes have to offer?”

Arianne True (Photo: Libby Lewis)

True has been giving back as an instructor through Hugo House’s Scribes program for a couple of years now since she finished her MFA, but this year will be her first time as a co-teacher. Her first workshop this summer will take inspiration from the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) collection as she and students use poetry to explore African American culture, history, and art. 

“I want them to know that history is not set in stone and that they can interact with it and that they can tell their story any way they want,” True said as she spoke of her students, “and that their story is a part of and connected with history. There’s no separation there. And I would like to have an impact on them so that they feel that poetry is a space where they can play and that they can try things out, and that writing in general is like a space for play.”

Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently working on a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration.

Featured image by Libby Lewis.