Monique Franklin is a multi-disciplinary artist and self-described performance introvert. Her exposure to the arts began as a toddler under the guidance of her mother, who led family plays in the living room of their Rainier Valley home. Music spoke to Franklin first, followed by dance. She has fond memories of dancing on a mini trampoline while listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, and Lionel Richie. Next was the written word.
“It wasn’t until I hit my teenage years, and life got complex as teenage years do. And I started writing,” Franklin shared. “I started journaling, and that was my entry into poetry, writing poetry as journal entries. And I did that for many, many years and never shared my poetry with anyone.”
September 3 marks the beginning of the first annual Verbal Oasis Spoken Word Festival. The four-day event represents a multigenerational depiction of art — from poetry and dancing to music and visual art. The festival allows attendees space to go beyond observing by providing workshops for them to engage.
“I’ve been performing in Seattle for over 15 years now, but in the process of being a performance artist, I’ve also been producing shows for that length of time. And I produce shows from children all the way up through adults with a specific focus on bringing together a multi-gender generational community of Black artists,” Franklin said. “So in some ways, you could say that this festival is about 15 years in the making.”
“The central goal is to preserve and celebrate traditional practices that are either rare, endangered, or unique in Washington State,” Langston Collin Wilkins, director of the CWCT, said. “We really want to provide funding for artists to take time out of their lives and out of their busy schedules to secure the vitality of their cultural traditions.”
It greets you like a bewitching tonic; a smooth liqueur culled from honey suckle. Its every utterance serves as an intoxicant to your ears. You can’t help but become entranced by its seeming contradictions, as nothing so raw could seduce you by its polish, nothing so genial could paralyze you with its power, and nothing so delicate could rumble with so much emotion. However, it indeed accomplishes just that, and it is the voice of South Seattle performing artist Monique Franklin.
This voice she possesses has bedazzled the throngs who have attended her spoken word, poetry, and performing arts performances across the Central District and South Seattle. Functioning as her main chisel to craft the provocative tales she shares on stage, that deal with everything from the emotional complexities of abortion, to the alienation inherent in growing up biracial, to the imbecility of misogyny, with the common thread that they evoke experiences so strong that they fill lived in by the audience. It’s no wonder that she’s been mentioned as the Billie Holiday of spoken word.
Comparisons notwithstanding, the Franklin graduate,and single mother, refuses to confine her gift to stage performances, as it seamlessly transitions to advocacy for causes dear to her heart, relaying instructions to her students at tap class, explaining algorithms to an enthralled group of computer science geeks, and expressing her chi while practicing martial arts. Hers is a voice which rarely ever rest, much to an audiophiles delight.
Emerald: Not only are you the unofficial poet laureate of South Seattle but you’re also soon to recieve your Computer Science degree from the University of Washington. Poetry and Computer Science seems like an interesting convergence.
Monique Franklin: Even though people think of it as dry, Computer Science is really a creative endeavor. As a programmer you can make anything. It also appeals to me because I’m hoping to help African American, LGBT, and other underrepresented communities have access to something which may elude them. It’s unfortunate that we all get taught at an early age that certain subjects are for certain types of people or that we’re born good at math, and that’s just not true. I failed math in High School and went back and learned it in college, and was then able to pursue Computer Science because of it.
Poetry is something I’ve been doing since I was a child; it’s kind of what I’ve been doing all along. I came to it because it helps me filter what’s going on in life, it helps me to take another look at it and understand it. It’s how I process things. I didn’t actually share my poems with anyone until I was 21, but I’ve been writing since I could write, which is since I can remember. I think having that incubation period is really important in developing your own voice and in creating sacred space. Still to this day I write things that are not for anyone else; they’re only for me.
Emerald: Could you share some of your of your history in growing up in the South Seattle Area and how that’s influenced your life and work?
Monique: I grew up on 37th and Andover and going to John Muir Elementary. I come from a single parent family of five – my mom raised all us. I’m kind of in the middle. I have an older sister and three younger brothers, and that was really informative growing up. I was eventually bused out to Orca, which is an alternative school, and that became a pivotal time in my life because we were one of the only black families there. I’m biracial, my mother, who raised me, is white and my father is black, and so even though I was raised in a diverse community,at a very early age I learned that people are fairly superficial. There would even be some who would say, “Oh, you’re half white, I can’t trust you.” As a young person, my understanding of why that was, is different from my understanding of it now, with the cultural perspective of what it means to be black in America, or what it means to white in America. People made a lot of assumptions about me, so it was pretty interesting growing up.
People would ask me questions like, “Is that really your mom?” It wasn’t just children who would ask, it was adults too. Some of the teachers and people in the stores, would ask my mom “Did you adopt those kids?” People just feel uncomfortable when they don’t have the answer to the race question in their mind and so they feel entitled to get this information. In addition I grew up very athletic and my mom actually coached most of my teams until I got into Middle School. I grew up playing volleyball, basketball, softball, and football, before the boys actually sprouted in middle school. I was considered the A-Train, I used to drag the boys across the field. It was pretty exciting, still the highlight of my elementary lunch time experiences.
The highlight of my sports career though, is at Franklin High School, where the basketball team I was on actually had the highest GPA as a championship team. We actually got honored in Olympia, WA for setting a record for Grade Point Average. The whole legislative body took a moment to recognize us. It was an exciting time to be at Franklin High School.
Emerald: Well, you certainly seem to have the confidence of a top tier athlete during your performances as they definitely don’t appear presented by the stereotypical neurotic artist. How has athletics shaped your art?
Monique: Well, I’d be lying if I said that I’m supremely confident always, and that I don’t have any confidence issues to speak of. So I can’t say that, but I will say that when I approach my art I say that I don’t want to not do the things I want to do because I’m afraid, or because I don’t think I have enough guff. I have the same conversation with youth. I tell them that it’s okay to be afraid, but it’s not okay to not do the things you want to do because you’re afraid.You can’t grow if you’re comfortable all the time. So that’s definitely how I approach my art and my life.
Overall, I feel like my spirit is of an inner warrior and I’m trying to develop that so that encompasses the competitive spirit I picked up from athletics . I mean I’m undefeated in thumb wrestling. If you want to find out we can do it later (laughter). I grew up playing games, and in a family of five competition was rampant. Even now I have a game brewing. I’m supposed to visit New York shortly, and I want to experience it and do some writing, but I want to challenge someone in basketball while I’m there.
Emerald: You’re engaged in a tremendous number of activities. You’re a poet, writer, performer, mother, tap dance instructor, computer science enthusiast. If you had to pin it down, what best defines you?
Monique: I think what really defines me is that I’m willing to learn anything. I’m really community minded. I’m trying to lead the way on Social Justice issues, so those are things that would define me. I love to work with our youth so that defines me.
I look at it like I’m me first and art is something that I do. So whatever I do, I’m going to bring whatever gifts I have to bear to do that. So if there is an organization that I’m supporting and they need a poet I’m going to bring my artist self to that venue. I think it’s irresponsible not to speak up when you should, and however that looks. Whether that’s me as an artist, or me as a mother, I think it’s the responsible thing to do.
Emerald: What most sparks you to create poetry and your spoken word performances?
Monique: I think it’s evolving. Right now the desire I have is that’d I’d like to be known. I don’t want to be famous, but I want to be known. In the sense of being understood and in the sense that I have stories that I want other people to know. It’s the idea that I have a truth I want to speak right now, and maybe that won’t always be my driving force, but that’s what it is right now.
When I see other people I enjoy their diversity, and the ways in which they do things, the nuances, and the details of how they do things are interesting to me. I think that bleeds into my scientific interest. I’m a researcher, so I’m there with my pen and pad, taking down notes, “That was really amazing what they did there,” but also I think I’m generally interested in knowing other people. There’s something you learn from an artist about that artist when they’re performing, even if they’re not presenting themselves. The choices they make in inventing someone else as a character is telling.
Emerald: What artist influence you today?
Monique: As an artist I write about all types of things, but I’m really influenced by music a lot, though I don’t listen to very much of today’s. The musicality from today’s music is just gone, the loopiness of it can be annoying. It’s catchy, but it doesn’t stimulate me. I listen to Prince, Maxwell, but also to 80’s rock. I like good music, however that comes. I’m into Jazz, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. I’m influenced by dancers, Michael Jackson, and the Nicholas Brothers. My poetry is also influenced by the sciences I’ve taken. I have poems wrapped in metaphor, just strictly around science and love and relationships. My daughter is a huge influence as well. My last show was titled Momma’s Muse which incorporated some of our real life experiences, with her permission, and also pulls in some other stories from people’s lives, which illustrated what I was trying to convey better than my own could.
Emerald: How is it that you’re able to be so emotionally naked onstage, saying very intimate and provocative things? That would frighten most people.
Monique: It comes back to that desire as an artist to be known, and for me the power of art is one of those teaching tools. People don’t all have the same experiences, but people can share in an experience through art, and some of that sharing can provoke conversations. Many of them that I wish I would have had the benefit of before I made certain decisions in my life. For me art is an opportunity to provoke those conversations to happen between other people. Whether or not it’s a strong, “I don’t believe in that, you shouldn’t do it.” Well, at least it’s a conversation, and then also, this goes back to being able to wrap some of the experiences of others into the characters I am on stage, it was really liberating for me to be able to take it on and tell someone else’s story, but to still have aspects of my own story intertwined. So I think the whole mix of it, people don’t know what is true and what’s not when you’re own stage, it gives you a certain level of removal. When I’m on stage, it’s never just my story, there’s always something more.
Emerald: You’re very outspoken about LGBT rights as a poet and performance artist. Where does that stem from?
Monique: For ten years of my life I grew up with two moms and so it created a situation, because during that time there was no protection for people who had alternative lifestyles. They could get fired from their jobs, so we couldn’t have many conversations within our household about it because it would jeopardize my mom’s employment So that meant each of us had to come up with different ideas of what that meant and unfortunately when we stepped out of our house the overwhelming conversation about it was very negative. It was another opportunity where I found myself in between these places in society and I had to figure it out. It was things that others have the privilege not to think about it until they choose to think about it.
Emerald: So did your writing and poetry serve as a type of release from all that was going on while you were growing up?
Monique: Writing and poetry was how I made sense of things, It was my internal conversation that I had with myself about what was going on, and what was really important in the world. I did a lot of philosophical writing about what was going on in my life and what was truly important about being a human being. I felt like the world had a crisis and so it led me to be a loner. I didn’t trust many people, and I didn’t think most people understood what was important. That meant I was very selective about who I let into my circle. I didn’t want anyone in my house who felt my mom was an evil person just because she was who she was.
Emerald: So does are you of the belief that great art is born out of life’s adversities?
Monique: Good art can come from anywhere. The thing is that humanity is so complex, and you can have an artist make the most beautiful painting and be a deplorable human being. That’s just a fact, but you can’t deny that they’re gifted. The reality is that we are complex, and we have great beauty and we have great horror, it just is what it is. There’s not a person on the planet who can say that they’re happy with every decision they’ve ever made.
I think art is gifted to some people, I think with others art is something they’re driven to develop, I think there’s a lot of things that come into art. I can only speak from where my art comes from, because I’m interested in a lot of different things and I’m interested in developing those different areas, I’m ambidextrous and a Gemini, so all this stuff kind of rolls together. For me art is about what piques my interest in the moment. There’s a sound that maintains my art; it’s very rhythmic and musical.
Emerald: So the melodic flow in your poetry is a conscious effort?
Monique: Yeah, I think as an artist, as a poet, I have my own aesthetic around how things sound. When I’m creating something the way it sounds is important, even the way it feels is important.
Emerald: What’s your process for coming up with some of your more ingenuous lines and metaphors in your poetry?
Monique: I have a poem called System Administrator it’s actually an erotic piece.
Emerald: The title completely gave that away (laughter).
Monique: What I like about metaphor is you say things without having to say it, you get to kind of hide some things, just like in the title of that poem. There’s some ambiguity about it. It’s tongue and cheek to me and that’s way it’s fun. I’m working on a whole erotic chat book called applied physics, and it’s all wrapped around a metaphor right now that are related to certain physicals properties, such as gravity and the uncertainty principle. There’s just certain things that lend itself towards looking toward a certain perspective.
Emerald: You’re a fairly successful artist and yet you don’t have any formal training, so to speak, in terms of an MFA or Arts Degree. What would you say to those people who have always wanted to write or perform poetry, or those who have always wanted to follow a passion, but just can’t seem to muster up the nerve?
Monique: It goes back to fear, no one is saying go stand on the corner and hold a sign that says, “will work for rhymes.” (laughter) Success started to come for me with the belief that what I was doing was going to work out in the end, and that I was just going to take the steps I needed to take to get to that end. It has to be more than hoping. It must be knowing that it’s going to work out and I’m going to do everything that I need to do in order for it to work out. If it’s something that you have a passion for, you need to start taking little steps in that direction, and what you’ll see is that the universe will seem to conspire to get you where you need to be. You start moving in that direction and opportunities will start opening up for you, but it takes hard work. It isn’t like I’m just going to roll out of bed and it’s going to be great! Chance plays a role for some people, but for the rest of us we need to work hard.
Emerald: They say that for a poet happiness is elusive. How do you define happiness at this stage in your life?
Monique: One of the things I learned about being a mother was how much I value community, which is in stark contrast to when I was growing, as I wasn’t too impressed with humanity (laughter). However, I realized that I needed other people in this life. You need other people to be truly happy and successful. It’s about developing those relationships. finding people you can trust, and to trust yourself is important. I’d say happiness is possible, and defining your own happiness is necessary. I say think about what makes you happy, and find more of that, even if it’s just twenty five more minutes a day of that, and as you increase your happiness quotient life will change for you. For more information on the multi-talented Monique Franklin, including upcoming shows and events, please visit www.verbaloasis.com. You can also follow Monique on Twitter @VerbalOasis
Photo Courtesy @VerbalOasis
Amplifying the Authentic Narratives of South Seattle