by John Wall Barger
Trapeta B. Mayson is the City of Philadelphia’s current Poet Laureate. Born in Liberia, Mayson moved to the U.S. in 1975 and grew up in North Philadelphia. She describes herself as the “sum of two continents . . . two countries, two sets of powerful people: my birth country of Liberia, and my beloved Philadelphia.” By profession, Mayson is a licensed clinical social worker, with a focus on mental health. As a poet and artist-teacher, she has led many workshops, working with children in schools and adults in shelters, detention centers, jails, churches, barbershops, restaurants, art museums, colleges, and universities. She is the author of a poetry collection, She Was Once Herself (2018), and a chapbook, Mocha Melodies (2008), and has published poems in American Poetry Review, Epiphany, and many other magazines. Her poems focus on the immigrant experience, Liberia, and community; both political and personal, they are always compassionate and pack an emotional wallop as well.
Trapeta and I conversed online together in June—she from her study in Germantown, Philadelphia, and I from my kitchen in West Philadelphia—while much of America marched in the streets to support Black Lives Matter, and as the COVID-19 pandemic and its corresponding economic turmoil continued.
John Wall Barger: Your poem “Arrival” talks about arriving in America from Liberia in 1975. It ends with the phrase, “But you mustn’t carry Liberia with you.” Have you carried Liberia with you all these years?
Trapeta B. Mayson: I have, despite some real challenges. When we arrived here, initially, my family’s legal status was “undocumented.” We had to quickly acclimate to this culture, living in the shadows. So part of it is a literal “carrying,” and part is mourning for the past. I had to adjust and adapt to American culture. Even though people speak English in Liberia, it’s heavily accented English, so I felt pressure to hurry up and straighten my English so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb and get detected. But I’ve always carried Liberia: the food, the culture, the country. It means a lot to me. I do go back. I have family there that I help and support as much as I can.
It’s an arrival to a place you’ve dreamed of. You’ve heard all these wonderful things—the streets are paved with gold, and there’s a price that you have to pay to fully get it. Then when you get it, all that glitters isn’t gold, you know? [laughs] It’s devastating, in a way. So then there’s a point when that person reckons with that—realizes that everything that you have, everything that you bring, is already okay. You want to add to what you are with your experiences here. You don’t want to erase it. I want to tell the young character in my poem, “You can have all these things.” She’s so excited about the milk-and-honey land. But that’s not really what it is.
JWB: That immigrant experience is a very important one for us, as a culture, to consider right now. I love that idea, of “All that glitters,” compared with the shock of arriving here.
TBM: It might be a little different these days. There’s not very much acceptance of immigrants. At that time, living undocumented, we were in the court system for many years, fighting off the deportation order to return back home to a country we didn’t know, that was in a war. Someone asked me, “Why did you come here?” Because you want something different, you want an opportunity for you and your family. This is why my parents came, when I was a child. You just want a shot, a chance.
JWB: Does your day job as a social worker provide inspiration for your writing? I imagine in some cases the stories must be devastating.
TBM: They are. But I also meet people with a lot of joy. There’s joy in surviving and thriving. I meet people who are artists and poets and writers and musicians in their own right, but they haven't had the ability or the privilege or the access to be able to write those poems or haven’t had the luxury. So although there’s a lot of pain and suffering, there’s also something about the human spirit, and survival, that encourages me in my work. And I try to balance that in my poems: not to just focus on the downtrodden stories. Because there’s also a lot of stories about light and survival and love.
JWB: That’s more important now than ever, isn't it? Not too much joy going around these days!
TBM: No, not too much. I have a saying, that I say every day: “Happiness is a choice.” Even with all of this darkness happening, there’s a lot of power happening and movement happening. You want to be able to find it and claim it for yourself on a daily basis.
JWB: During the Iraq War, the band The Chicks (formerly called The Dixie Chicks) said critical things about George W. Bush and were lambasted for it. But in these weeks, as people take to the streets in support of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there seems to be more space for all of us to respond. In Dave Chappelle’s recent special, “8:46,” he says we don't want to hear from famous people like JA Rule at this particular moment. What is the role of poets (and poets laureate!), in these current waves of protests?
TBM: Artists have always spoken up, especially poets. We’ve been persecuted, prosecuted, for speaking up. Even when people were suppressed, they continued to speak up. That’s what makes this struggle. It’s not just something that happens because people were rioting and protesting—it’s been happening. It’s a continuation. The violence and the injustice continues. The poems and the art continue, right?
I feel like a lot more people are speaking up. And I hear from one camp where someone says, “Yeah, but are they genuine? Do they really mean it?” It’s a beautiful thing to be able to say, “Yeah, we believe Black Lives Matter,” and not be afraid of speaking up. I’m here to really focus on the struggle, because we’re not at that finish line. And if all those voices help us get there, to help us find true liberation and true conquering of the injustices, that’s what matters.
There are two phrases I like. About the pandemic somebody said, “We’re doing the very best we can.” For me, that’s a phrase I always say to myself. I’m not here to judge how you handle what you’re doing. We’re all doing the best we can. And about the protests the phrase that stays with me is, “This stuff has been happening a long time.” Now, there are all these courageous individuals, mostly young people, who are on the front lines. You used to hear people say, “Well, what’s going to happen with this generation? We’re so worried! They just seem like they don’t care.” I’ve never thought that, because I’ve worked with these kids in schools. I know the power of the youth. And here we have proof of it.
You asked me about my voice earlier. I kind of feel like a Dave Chappelle, right? We’re all the poets laureate. We all have to get our voices out. It doesn’t matter about having the title. And I struggle with, “Am I saying enough? Am I doing enough?” But we’re all doing it the best we can.
JWB: We were worried about Millennials a few years ago, but they’re killing it at the moment. They’re out on the street, making change happen, right now. It’s beautiful.
TBM: Enough is enough, they said. And I love it. We’re all a part of the movement, and I just love it. Someone said, “We’re all doing it different ways.” And that’s what I appreciate. So maybe one day I’m not able to be on the protest line. But I can write lines of a poem. I can feed the hungry. There are different levels to this struggle, and each of us have to contribute to it in a way that makes sense.
JWB: When Greta Thunberg came to the U.S. last fall to talk about the climate crisis, there seemed to be momentum happening for environmentalism. But then, after, it kind of fizzled. I’m afraid that fizzling might happen also with the Black Lives Matter protests, after a month or two, after all this momentum has passed.
TBM: Yeah, but the reality is the violence still continues, the injustice still continues, the systemic racism still continues. So even when the popular voices fizzle, we’re still living the struggle. We still have to keep passing that baton. Like Greta. All these wonderful things that the youths are doing to highlight environmental concerns: they have to keep up that struggle, because it’s about the life and death of the earth, right? And this is about the life and death of human beings, of Black bodies, and marginalized people. You can’t just take a rest. Like I always say, It’s always happened. This is just another level. So the question becomes, what’s next in this?
JWB: Philadelphia has so much emerging poetic talent at the moment, like Raquel Salas Rivera, Kirwyn Sutherland, Warren Longmire, and so many others, you among them. Who do you see as the rising stars of Philadelphia?
TBM: One of the tragic things about the Philadelphia poetry scene, which I noticed when I was coming up back in the day with Panoramic Poetry, was what a big deal it was for us Philly poets to go read in New York: at the Nuyorican or Busboys and Poets. We always entered those spaces with a frame of mind like, “We’re going up yonder. We’re going up to the promised land!” I’ve read in New York many times, for different events. I always had the sense that Philly people felt like, in New York they arrived. And I was saddened by that because here in this place, in Philadelphia, the talent is overwhelming. I remember Yolanda Wisher saying, “A hero is never accepted in their own home.”
So, the rising stars of Philadelphia. There’s Kirwyn Sutherland, Enoch the Poet, David Gaines, Kai Davis, Husnaa Hashim. And Mia Concepcion, Philly’s Youth Poet Laureate. And then you have the people holding up the mantle, like Nzadi Keita, Ursula Rucker, Sonja Sanchez. Yolanda Wisher is at the top of my list. She’s a phenomenal poet.
So it’s a really healthy scene in Philadelphia, a really rich scene. What I love about what the younger poets are doing is that not only are they making space, they’re making it entrepreneurial a lot more and that speaks to the spirit. They aren’t shy about being vocal when access is denied, calling out places and people. Back in the day, we just wanted to write and read and get our words out there. Today, it’s a lifestyle, the poetry. And along with honing their craft, they’re really creating a culture—poetry readings, venues, workshops, mixing it with art, t-shirts—and I respect that.
JWB: Who else should we be reading these days?
TBM: There are my poets who I adore, who I always read: Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa. I love Marie Howe, Louise Glück, Natasha Trethewey, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes. I co-taught a class at the Rosenbach Museum with Yolanda Wisher on black women writing, and the healing aspect of black women writing, with a focus on Toni Morrison. We’re teaching another course at the Rosenbach on black women’s short stories, exploring people like Alice Dunbar Nelson, Toni Cade Bambara, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Reading outside of my comfort zone informs my writing.
JWB: What is your hope for poetry?
TBM: My hope is that poetry keeps its integrity, but be just as loose as it needs to be. I want poetry to still maintain its integrity but I want it to be loose in the streets. I want it to be focused on honing and crafting, and really paying attention. But I want it to be accessible. I want it flowing everywhere. Yeah, that’s what I want. My hope is that it’s attainable. It’s not intimidating. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching poetry in shelters, in detention centers, jails, colleges, universities, and churches—to people who would never think about poetry. And at the end of every one of those sessions, one or two of those people in the room, they smiled at themselves, proud as a peacock, and they said, “Wow! You like that, miss? You like that? Well, I guess I’m a poet!” That’s what I want poetry to keep doing. [laughs] So many young people say, “Miss, I’m not a poet!” And at the end you can’t get them off the microphone. For me, I want it to keep its integrity. Because I don’t want it to be, “Any old thing is a poem.” But any old thing is a poem. But it’s what you do with that any old thing.