By: Lucy Jayes
I sit at a table next to a window, rumbling with vibrations from the jackhammers and drills, while boasting a scenic view of scaffolding and orange vests, with a steaming hot small ceramic tea pot directly in front of me. This is a coffee shop in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, Colorado — an environment that is quickly changing, (or so I’m told, I’ve only been in the area for four months or so.) The so-called “Harlem of the West” features an evolving landscape; construction is the norm — new high-rise apartment complexes decorated with the forgotten ones’ outstretched hands. This neighborhood, like far too many places in the world, provides ladders to some and nooses to the others — while corralling young people into a group between the two, struggling against the temptations and expectations of their environment and the just-naive-enough dream that anything is possible. This is where I believe the power of language, the forming of 26 letters into a series of patterns or grunts, is our saving grace. In fact, I believe in it so much that I am obsessed with the idea; I am a harvester of words — of my own and of others. Language can spark things in other people that no one would ever imagine.
That is why today, I am drinking decaf tea rather than hot coffee, because I am meeting with someone whose words have completely unraveled me before, only to be played a second time, and then, to unravel me again and I don’t want to unravel right in her presence, so decaf it is. Dominique Christina walks in the front door with a knee-high boy in a matching her in a turquoise shirt, heading straight toward the gelato display. After she pays and gets her son settled with his grilled cheese at the table next to us, I introduce myself and dive into getting to know the tall, self-assured and poised woman sitting across from me, whom I feel like I already know from watching videos of her perform poetry.
We start by talking about her background as an educator, right here in the Denver Public Schools. First, at Smoky Hill High School, which is in one of the more privileged school districts in Denver and then, at P.S.1 Charter School, which is now permanently closed. She describes her students as “These kids were largely black and brown kids. They were largely low-income kids. They mostly would have been first-generation graduates.” and describes the work as “Some of the most fruitful work I’ve ever done.” When asked why she enjoyed high school age students the most, this was her response:
“They’re just angsty and cynical and wonderful. They’re at an age where I identify with. Because you know, strangely, as an artist, we brood a lot. We lament the state of things and feel like we don’t know what to do. And that to me is high school. The navigation of: “What world is this?” This is an essential question for high school and it is an essential question for me as an artist.”
I then asked Dominique if she had any teachers or mentors that stood out to her during her days of school.
“I had a ton of example to follow but those were people in my family of origin. There’s a lot of privilege in that too. I didn’t need to go outside of my own home to find really profound examples of leadership and caring and bravery. My family are all educators and activists. My mother was a professor, my grandmother and my grandfather were educators. They all played a crucial role in the Civil Rights movement. My aunt has a Congressional Medal of Honor for desegregating a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. I didn’t need to look outside my own family for mentorship, at least not in terms of how to show up bravely and courageously and how to take pride in the work you do and mean the work that you do. My family demonstrated that.”
She has, however, found a mentor in her current partner. fellow writer Jack Hirschman.
“He’s a crotchety old Jewish man whom I love intensely. His mentorship as of late has been very important to me. He validates my inclination to sort of interrupt space. You know, the spaces that I occupy. I don’t want to just walk into rooms and have everyone agree with me necessarily. But rather, if there are stories who aren’t making it into the light, then I want to be the one sort of pushing those, and he affirms my right to do that. So I’ve really appreciated his mentorship.”
Dominique was inspired to write during her senior year in college, which can seem a bit late compared to some who picked up a pen at age 13 and never put it down. But she seems to have always had it in her.
“My mother taught English Lit for years and years and years. She’d walk around the house reciting Edgar Allen Poe and T. S. Elliot and e. e. Cummings and Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare and I had sonnets in my head when I was six and seven and eight years old. Language was incredibly available to me because of that. At Christmas time, we would have competitions on who could memorize “The Raven” the fastest. So we had that but I never related to myself as a writer. I was an athlete, I was a Division I athlete, I was a scholarship athlete: it was my life. It was what I spent the most of my time on, gave the most of myself to. But then, in my spring semester of my senior year in undergrad, I took a Creative Writing class and it changed, literally, the trajectory of my life. I just discovered that there were things that I needed to say. Things I’d been dying, literally dying to say, that just came gurgling out of me. It was like I was reborn and I never looked back. So from that point, when I was taking that class, when I was 22 to now, at 41, I’ve written every day. The recognition is, it saves my life. Writing saves my life. But I came upon it as quite an accident.”
What does not come as easily to her, surprisingly enough if you’ve ever seen it for yourself, is performing her poetry.
“Writing to me was critical. This is the life preserver that snatches me out of hell each morning. I didn’t want to have anything to do with an in-authentic representation of who I am. I was afraid that slam would create that for me. If I have to choose between writing and performing, I always choose writing. Always. I think performing is important and necessary though, so I don’t want to minimize that because there is something really special about naming something in a place. Declarations are important. If I say something in a room, it changes the room. It changes the climate of the room. It changes the people of the room, what they are now thinking and considering about is different. But writing to me still feels incredibly personal and so I have to be very clear, I’m writing for myself. Then I take an aerial view and decide if what I’m writing has resonance for some other body, not just my body and those would be the poems I read. Performing is not something I am deeply in love with. I am deeply in love with writing but I am not deeply in love with performing. Depending on the content that I’m sharing, it is difficult to get up and talk about things. Because in that moment, I have no more secrets. Whatever is broken about me, whatever is unresolved or unblessed about me is available to strangers to thumb through.”
I then ask about the performance one of her most sensitive and heartbreaking poems, “Star Gazer” compared to her declaration of revenge, “Karma.”
“Karma is the expression of anger and rage. Which I’m really good at. I’m not really good at vulnerability. I’m not really good at sadness. At least, not on this “gaze upon the broken girl” sort of way. It’s something I have to practice. By the way, Star Gazer was not a poem. It was a page in my journal that I let my brother read and he said “That’s a poem.” Vulnerability is something I have to practice. But the ability to so in a public sort of way, shows the people who may have had this same history and do not yet know that they can have authorship over it, that they can name it and be okay. I move a lot more furniture in my head and heart to read Star Gazer than I do to read Karma.”
Both of these poems bring up stories from Dominique’s past: in her own lifetime and in generations before her. I ask how storytelling has been a part of her family.
Stories are medicine. They’ve always been. They are a road map, a compass. That’s the lighthouse. The story is the lighthouse. It puts flesh on your bones. It gives you a wider way to know yourself and know your history or to know the people who preceded you to give you options that you have now. It gives you a way to forgive yourself for the moments when you were broken or the moments you were clumsy in making decisions. Stories are so critical .They hold so much weight. There are certain things you pass onto your children. You give them to hold in trust. My grandmother gave my mother stories to hold in trust. She gave them to me, I hold them in trust. I give them to my children with the understanding that I want you to pass this on to your children. I want them to remember me, even if I’m not in my body. It’s a ritual. It truly is a balm, a salve and a blessing. Poetry is storytelling. I tell you the story of Emmett Till. I tell you the story of Birmingham. I’m giving you this story as a way for you to locate your own humanness, find yourself inside it somewhere. Also, I feel like because of the way we function in society, because of these chasms and casts that suggest that you and I aren’t relative to each other. I give you a story and I bring you into things and you might not have grown up the way that I did and your family might not be constructed the way that mine is but if you can find yourself in the story that I told you or even if that story calls on you to tell a story back. Now, we’re relative to each other. We know each other and stories facilitate that better than anything else.”
Language is the building blocks of stories. Dominique redefines the term “significant other” on her website by describing herself as “Significant “Other.” I ask why she choose to describe herself this way.
“The conversation around being an other. There is the acknowledgement that there is this template that is accepted as the best way to be. A lot of times this is male, straight, Christian, able-bodied. If you can’t check those boxes, you’re in the other box. You can reckon with that with instability or regard it as meaning you are worth less or ou can acknowledge the magic and the beauty on how you show up and how unique you are and how necessary you are and it becomes the legs you stand up. So that’s how I am. I’ve interrupted every place that I have been in. I don’t fit in neatly, anywhere. I interrupt homogeneous spaces because of my melanin content. But, I interrupt spaces with black folks, too, because my education suddenly creates this polarity. All of the sudden by the virtue of the resources I have and the education that I have and the family, there is distance between me and black folks. Which I don’t want, it’s a wound to me, but it’s there. So for me, saying Significant “Other,” I am saying that I don’t fit into any of these boxes but I am significant in my otherness. I am living in the margins instead of in the center and I belong there. I’m not asking for permission to be there. I know I belong there.”
Dominique teams up with another poet, Denice Frohman to deliver spoken word poetry that allows each of their otherness to shine. I ask how they work as a team.
“We realized there were some really critical points upon which we connected. The way we relate to this work, the responsiblity we feel that we have to showing up big in a room and telling your story. I have to acknowledge that I have all of these people who came before me who would have never had this opportunity and for Denice, she knows that there are people who will die with these stories so we connected with that. It wasn’t just a hobby we had. This wasn’t something cool to do, for now. This was what my life looked like. In terms of social commentary, or thing that we critique, or weigh in on, there are a lot of similarities. So we try to focus on these points where we connect. But also, she grew up very differently from me. so that becomes really powerful to. her voice gets heard, my voice gets heard. We don’t mute each other. One is not wholly absorbed by the other. I will write something and say “Hey I wrote this thing. Do you care about that?” and if she does, she will write her part.”
Dominique Christina empowers women by showing them that every space is not only theirs to enter, but theirs to interrupt, to disrupt and to disturb without apology. She empowers women by showing them that even your darkest stories are theirs to recreate, to rename, to retell. She proves that power is in the voice, and the secret to being powerful is not to be afraid to use yours. Thank you Dominique for the interview and readers, you can find her book “The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm: A Colored Girl’s Hymnal.” at http://www.dominiquechristina.com/purchase-book