In an earlier post (TABLE ROCK WRITERS WORKSHOP)I shared a bit of the wisdom that I gleaned from Phillip Shabazz’s poetry workshop at Table Rock. Today I am pleased to welcome Phillip to the first of a two-part interview, where he will shed more light on the makings of a poet and writer.
LP: Phillip, I know you have a very busy schedule, so I am thrilled you have taken the time to be here today. Tell us about your early years, where you grew up, siblings, family life, schooling, etc. How has that shaped your writing?
PS: I came of age in a housing project in Louisville, Kentucky. My mother, the head of the family, worked domestic jobs in the time of Jim Crow, when, as my oldest brother would say, black people got their heads cracked for speaking out against racial injustice. All of this was during the Civil Rights years, when the mainstream of American society was experiencing the 1960’s.
We were very poor, but from childhood, my life was always enriched by music at home, at church, and at school. In my family, music had a very special value. Our way of enjoying each other’s company, and communicating in the world was through music. It was all we really had. I learned to sing, not so much in church, but from the music I listened to on the radio, especially songs from the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield, to mention a few. Early on, Soul and Jazz, Rock and Roll, and the Blues schooled me in the ways of American culture. Music was, in a special way, a picture of us, but with sound.
I didn’t look at the world through television but through the prism of a song, a novel, or a poem. This felt intuitively sincere. One way or another, through music, I became aware of language—stories and lyrics, as a way of communicating, and of constructing something out of my life. It was more an organic education than a formal schooling. And so from elementary school through high school, music is what I most valued. By the time I got to college at the University of Louisville, music and creative writing had already hit me. The short of it is music was my way into poetry and prose. It was a natural progression.
LP: When did you become interested in writing and at what point did you decide to make that your life work?
PS: I was always writing, where I could and when I could. I had stages of interest—rhymes when I was a boy, songwriting and journaling when I was a teenager, prose and poetry as an adult when I started engaging ideas for social change. I decided to make writing my life’s work while I was in college.
LP: You have been an artist-in-residence at Duke, you have taught creative writing workshops to both adults and children, and you have written books for both adults and children. Across all this diversity, is there a favorite, and if so, why?
PS: That’s a hard one . . . I have felt the necessity of working with various age groups all my professional life. Expression from writers at different phases of their development really interests me—children because they express what childhood is like; young adults because they show what happens during the years of adolescence, adults because they reveal what has happened to them on a personal and reflective level. They all express a certain kind of fleeting impermanence about the human journey. The truth is, I don’t have a favorite age group entirely, but on occasion, I’ll bond with a group of writers, and during that time it’s like being in seventh heaven.
LP: Thanks for these insights into the writing life, Phillip. Readers, stay tuned next week, when Phillip will talk about (and give away a copy of) his middle grade book in verse, “When the Grass Was Blue.”
Hey READERS, I would love to hear from you.
Is your MIND FULL of old thoughts or new?