Monica Prince is demanding: of herself, of her craft, of her students. She works tirelessly to excel in everything she does, and makes her dedication and practice seem effortless. Monica’s choreopoems (choreographed series of poems that integrate performance poetry, dance, music, song, and live art) are both inspirational and heartbreaking. She writes of sex, violence, race, gender, bodies, hate crimes, and false advocacy. As a Black woman, a survivor, and an activist, her craft intertwines with social justice walking the line between pushing and comforting her audiences, and seamlessly bring together richly developed voices and stories.
By herself, Monica is revolutionary. From her time as an undergraduate to her profession teaching undergraduates, she has rooted herself in social justice, political awareness, and the fight for equality. She has instilled these values in her work with SFWP Quarterly, eliciting interviews and publications from authors who represent marginalized groups, lending her platform to those with voices that need to be heard.
Her most recent choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman, a love letter to Black women in the United States during the #BlackLivesMatter movement, played to sold-out audiences at Susquehanna University and in Denver, Colorado. Her next choreopoem will premiere at Susquehanna April 12-13, 2019.
I sat down with Monica to talk about writing, advocacy, and the art of the choreopoem, and her forthcoming collection from Red Mountain Press.
The Rumpus: In studying, writing, and now teaching a form that is not yet common in most literary circles, have you found it difficult to find things like reading materials, performance examples, or peer and mentor help in developing your craft? If so, how have you combatted these limited resources?
Monica Prince: The term “choreopoem” was coined by Ntozake Shange in 1975 with her award-winning show For colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, and I’ve been studying it since 2011. Even though choreopoems are a medium that combine performance arts, not many people write them and get them produced.
I lean heavily on social media to find others who are doing this work. YouTube helps me find performances that are not cataloged in academic libraries, and I use Twitter to find other people writing choreopoems and solicit their scripts.
I recently wrote about choreopoems, and more people appeared in my inbox asking how I produce my choreopoems. We are growing in number—praise our ancestor, Ntozake Shange, who paved the way. Being seen like that validates the work we all do, and situates our work deeper into the conversation of what literature can do and be
When I’m creating a show, I remember that the choreopoem is as accessible as it is collaborative. I may write the show alone, but it’s a breathing thing. The director and cast can add or remove dancers, include artists, add an intermission with a dance break. Overall, the performers make the show; I just provide the text.
Rumpus: What does your process look like?
Prince: I handwrite my drafts first. I always use a black pen unless I can’t find one. After I write the first draft of a poem, I reread it and adjust whatever doesn’t sound right. Then I type it up, revising it again. Then I don’t look at it again for probably a month or so. I print a bunch of poems out after a while and I tape them to my office wall. I read all the drafts out loud and, with a colored ink pen—something that will smudge if you don’t let it dry enough—I make changes. I write notes. Sometimes I scrap whole poems. Then I type up the rewrites.
This can go on for about a year, and then the poems get loud in my subconscious. They don’t like being printed, written on, and reprinted over and over with no purpose. They start talking from my office wall, asking to be put to good use. Can’t we sit together? they ask. Can’t you find someone to perform us?
Rumpus: How do you balance the delicacy expected of poetry as a craft with the harsh emotionality of your content? Have you ever found a topic you were unable to write if this balance didn’t present itself?
Prince: Poetry is always beautiful to me, no matter the content. It’s supposed to make you feel something, even if that feeling is thoughtfulness. My work deals with oppression, especially as it relates to race, sex, gender, faith, and bodies. I haven’t encountered a topic that matters to me that cannot be treated with poetry, and that includes white supremacy (see Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead”). Poetry should shock and surprise and comfort and distress and empower and embolden and soften us. That’s the kind of poetry I want in the world.
The other half of my job is activism. The reason my job title is so important—I am an assistant professor of Activist and Performance Writing—is that I’m situated in the English and Creative Writing department—not theatre, not dance, not political science. My job is, by its definition, interdisciplinary. As such, the content of my work is highly political. Not in the sense that it’s trying to run for office, but in that, because it’s written by a Black woman with immigrant parents, it has to be political. When it comes to activism and politics, we have to remember that some of us do not get the luxury of turning off the news or changing the subject. My body, my gender, my heritage, my skin, my hair, my breath—these are all political. I cannot choose to separate my personhood from my politics, because someone will always link them.
I try to incorporate this into my editing position at Santa Fe Writers Project. Even though the Quarterly doesn’t publish poetry, I want work that surprises me, because that’s what the journal’s mission is all about: bucking trends and uplifting the work we’ve loved to a platform previously inaccessible.
Rumpus: Do you ever find yourself more often needing to defend or to explain your work? And how do you navigate audiences or peers who are uncomfortable with the explicit nature of race, sex, or violence in your work?
Prince: Ha! In rehearsals for How to Exterminate the Black Woman last year, I told my actors, “The point of this show is to make white people uncomfortable.” They thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
The world is often unpretty. Race, sex, and violence make people uncomfortable, no matter how desensitized we are to it after watching The Wire or Game of Thrones. It never gets easier to encounter hate crimes, rape, or social faux pas like white women touching Black women’s hair.
For those who voice their discomfort, I always encourage them to sit with their discomfort. Identify why you don’t like this feeling. What is it about what was said or performed that activated this feeling within you? Is it because it reminds you of your own bad behavior, or activates a feeling of protection for someone you love?
A tenure-track job has meant that I don’t have to defend my work in the same way I have in the past when I held different roles. Still, the world is full of work that’s not upsetting. That’s not what I write.
Rumpus: With that in mind, and what you said above that the point of How to Exterminate the Black Woman was to make white audiences uncomfortable, how much do you consider your audience?
Prince: When it comes to more conservative audiences, my shows are really written for them. In the same way that I want to read works by older white men because they are writing from a place I cannot enter, I want my conservative viewers to engage with my work. Isn’t the beauty of being alive that we get to think deeply and critically about why we believe what we believe? I understand sexual assault because I’m a survivor—of course I want to read something from the point of view of the rapist because I don’t know how they feel; I have an assumption and sense, but I don’t have their exact narrative. Getting out of our comfort zone is the best thing we can do for ourselves.
I went to a philosophy lecture a little while ago during which I understood about twelve percent of what was said. But I love words and ideas outside of my grasp, so I listened intently for the whole hour. And I’m still thinking about that lecture, how it applies to my ideas of consent and democracy. I hope conservatives come to my shows. They might leave radically changed, radically rooted in their beliefs, or questioning. Sounds like a win no matter what.
In addition, I encourage people from all walks of life to come to my shows. The philosophy of the choreopoem, at least how I use and teach it, is to be inherently inclusive and accessible. How to Exterminate the Black Woman was performed for primarily white audiences—because ultimately, those are the people who need to see a show about people of color. It is an act of survival for the oppressed to understand those in power; the powerful don’t always possess the same obligation. There are many doors into my choreopoems so they have the opportunity to impact as many people in the audience as possible—whether that’s through race, gender, sexual identity or expression, love of language, or another door. I consider my audience from the jump—choreopoems don’t come to life without them.
Rumpus: There are a lot of emotional themes in your choreopoems. How do you organize so many heavy subjects without letting them become truly unruly and overpower the work? How do you balance making demands of your audiences while also taking care of them?
Prince: I write the show the way I’d be able to handle it alone. I cannot watch someone try to kill themselves, and then start laughing. That’s irresponsible. But I can watch a suicidal scene, then listen to a story about a miscarriage, and then listen to someone talk about shaving their head: climax, falling action, resolution. The emotional weight cannot dissipate, but it can’t make people want to leave the room. When I’m revising, if I’m crying for more than one poem in a row, I have to move something. I always think: Monica, there’s someone in the audience just like you. At what point would you walk out? That helps me revise.
Rumpus: Since the 2016 presidential election, news and social media have increasingly reflected social justice issues that you directly write about. Do you find it more difficult or more necessary to write your choreopoems now?
Prince: If anything, I’m bolder now. The President has reminded me that if you’re given a platform, you need to speak. Susquehanna University gave me a platform, so I will scream from it.
Social justice has always been part of my blood. It’s a survival technique. I have never permitted myself to be silent, even if others have tried to silence me, and I owe it to younger Monica and every person who comes after me to elevate the issues of the public. Nina Simone said it is the duty of the artist to engage in the political, and I don’t disobey orders.
I think my work is just as crucial now as it was before I started. I personally don’t believe work stops being relevant. Even if the references are outdated, the messages stay the same. Equal rights never go out of style. No one is free until we’re all free—and I’ll keep writing, staging, and teaching this form until everyone is free.
Rumpus: In our current social climate, writers, artists, and activists of color are often seen as one of two extremes: The pinnacle authority on their topic, or a dime a dozen. Have you ever felt like you were put into one of these categories? If so, what did you do to either combat the categorization or lean into it and potentially shape it to your advantage?
Prince: I have never felt like an expert because I suffer from as much imposter syndrome as every other high-achieving artist of color. The emotional labor put on artists and activists of color is undue and I often feel like I need to have all the answers, like I need to be able to save everyone with every show. To fight this, I write shows that are so distinctly not for everyone. How to Exterminate the Black Woman is for Black women. Period. When the men of color on campus complained to me, I wrote a new show for them called Roadmap (and it premieres on Susquehanna’s campus April 12-13, 2019!). There is always more to be said. Like Toni Morrison told us, if we don’t see the books we want to read, we must write them ourselves.
I realize that contradicts what I said about audience, but I don’t think about audience and addressee as the same thing. I’m always concerned about how my audience will receive a piece, but I can’t write a choreopoem for faceless beings. I needed to write How to Exterminate the Black Woman because I’ve reached a point in my personal life where I’m considering raising children. I woke up one night feverish with a question on my lips: How can I raise a child in a world that wants to kill them? The show is addressed to Black women who have the same question. With my newest show, Roadmap, I had fallen into an Internet wormhole that offered up the CDC statistic that the leading cause of death for Black men aged fifteen through thirty-four is homicide. That was my entry for a choreopoem about men of color; as I wrote the show, I considered their reaction at every point.
Rumpus: What projects are you currently working on?
Prince: My first full-length collection of poetry is being published by Red Mountain Press next fall! At this point, it’s called Disrupted, Suffocating Memory. It’s both exciting and stressful because suddenly my focus has moved from drafting new work to exclusively retooling more finished work. It requires different energy—revision uses different muscles. But I’m thrilled! Poet Tina Chang told me this past summer that this would be my last year as an emerging writer, and that makes me work harder on this manuscript. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands.
In addition, I’m working on a group of poems about sex and shame. I host workshops on erotic writing across the country with my poet-friend Natalie Sharp, and their aim is to address participants’ relationship with the erotic in relation to sexual trauma. Sex and shame are interwoven in our culture, but I’m more interested in how sex, shame, and rape fantasies collide in poetry—what happens when a body wants to experience pleasure in the same manner it was abused? These poems are much shorter than my usual poems, and while I’m completing my manuscript for Red Mountain Press, I draft and ignore these pieces. They likely won’t see my wall until after my choreopoem is staged and my proofs have been signed. And that’s oddly exciting—like wrapping presents for myself and hiding them in the house until my birthday.
Rumpus: If you could have one absolute, lasting effect come directly from your work with and performance of choreopoems, what would it be?
Prince: No one exists in a vacuum. There is no issue that can be solved with one person. I cannot do choreopoems alone—no one can change the world by themselves.
Photograph of Monica Prince © Susquehanna University Communications Department. Choreopoem cast photo © Emilie LeBée-Thomas.