Interview with Brianna Vanderveen

blogselfie (1).jpgBrianna Vanderveen is one of OU’s many talented undergraduate writers and poets. She recently placed third in OU’s poetry slam. Brianna has agreed to share her experiences with slam poetry, her motivations, and what inspires her.

– Sharnita Sanders


Sharnita Sanders: When it comes to poetry, what is your creative process?

Brianna Vanderveen: My creative process is kind of difficult. I actually hate it sometimes. I used to think I was just your average run of the mill procrastinator, but I’ve come to think it’s honestly just the way my mind works. My greatest inspiration comes to me less than 24 hours before I’m supposed to have a piece completed. All my close friends and family know that if they watch me perform at a slam or just in general, chances are I was up at 4 that morning writing it. That’s how it’s been since I started writing poetry seriously 4 years ago. I’ll spend about 2 days before I’m supposed to perform freaking out thinking “There’s no way I can get this done in time. What am I gonna do?” And then with about 4-12 hours left, it’ll hit me like a brick wall. Every time.

Sharnita Sanders: Who are some of your favorite poets? How have they inspired you?

Brianna Vanderveen: My favorite poet on the scene is Sierra Demulder. Her poem “Mrs. Dahmer” was the first pro slam I ever saw, and I immediately fell in love. The way she handles language and perspective is mesmerizing. I saw her perform at GVSU last year and got to meet her. It was incredible. I’m also pretty inspired by classic poetry, lots of Langston Hughes.

SS: Do you only write poetry or do you explore other genres?

BV: Right now it’s pretty much just poetry, though I’d like to expand that eventually. I don’t think I’ll ever be like a fiction novelist, but I do have a few essays I’d love to get published someday. Maybe a short story, and I want to write my memoirs. But mostly poetry.

SS: In one of your poems you dedicated it to your younger sister. What are some other elements that inspire your poetry?

BV: I’m a firm believer in writing what you know. Everyone has an incredible experience or thought to contribute, so I get a lot of inspiration from my own life and my family, especially the way those experiences relate to different events and social issues. My faith is a big inspiration as well. Especially in a time where church and politics and Christianity seem to be such a twisted concept. I like to use my writing to find truth again.

SS: You seemed completely in your element when on stage, was this your first poetry slam?

BV: This was not my first slam, but I actually haven’t done that many. In my entire life I want to say I’ve performed eight times. But I do have an extensive background in theatre and music so the stage is nothing new. I will say that, out of everything, I think slam poetry is my favorite type of performance that I do.

SS: How did you prepare for the slam, and do you use the same process every time you perform?

BV: I mentioned earlier, but I prepared by not preparing at all until the last minute. It’s pretty much like that every single time. Sometimes I wonder what would happen to my poetry if I started working weeks in advance, but then I wonder if it would even sound like me.

SS: Although this isn’t your first time performing your poetry in front of an audience, do you still get nervous sharing your work?

BV: I do! Not uncontrollably nervous, but it really is like bearing a piece of your soul on stage. Depending on the depth of the subject you’ve written on, a poor reception could feel like anything between “they don’t like my writing style” to “they don’t like me as a person”. The slam community is very open and loving though, so I personally have never actually experienced that.

SS: You placed third. How did it feel to be in the top three?  Have you ever won a competition?

BV: It felt incredible! Though I’ve competed before, that was the first time I’ve placed in a slam that is truly a slam-style competition. It felt like someone had told me “yes, this is exactly where you’re supposed to be. You’re on the right track. Don’t stop this.” I’ve actually written a lot more since the slam than I normally do.

I would say though that placing isn’t necessarily as important as it is in a sport or something. There’s no universal scoring guide for slam poetry, so it’s kind of totally up to whatever the judges like that day to an extent. That might seem unfair at first, but it really does create an environment where the poetry is what counts, not the scores.

SS: What was your favorite moment of the slam?

BV: That’s difficult to answer. My favorite part is always every single time a poem is being performed. And that’s not just a feel-good answer, it’s the truth. There is nothing quite like getting to watch a person trust a room full of strangers (spoiler: they don’t leave as strangers) with their poem.

SS: What advice would you give to someone who’s just getting into spoken word poetry?

BV: Write. Write everything. Be fearless to the point of lunacy in performing. Perform alongside people who have done it for years, weeks, minutes, whatever. You’ve found a community that LOVES “noobs” like no other does, we’re all so excited you’re here so take advantage of that and perform even while you’re still trying to figure things out! Don’t let anyone place restrictions on your poetry. Even if it’s something you might not perform for a while or even ever, don’t let anyone rule what is in your notebook. That’s the beautiful thing about writing; ownership. Everything you say is yours. Even if everything else gets taken from you, the words you’ve put in the world can’t be. 

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