Interview by-Natalie Solmer
I first learned about Alyssa Gaines, Indianapolis’s Youth Poet Laureate, through the organization Word As Bond, a writing community for young people in the Indianapolis area. Alyssa Gaines is a multi-media artist, poet, photographer, playwright, and actress, just to name a few things! She has received awards such as being named a National Medalist for the Scholastic Art & Writing Competition in 2019, and the Young Playwrights In Progress Finalist in 2018. After reading this interview and three of her poems published here (follow the links at the bottom), you will understand why. Currently enrolled at Park Tudor School, Gaines spoke to The Indianapolis Review over email recently:
NS: I read in your resume that you have been writing poetry since the third grade. That’s wonderful! What sparked your interest in poetry, and how did you get started?
AG: The first poem that I ever wrote began as an assignment in class in third grade. We were told to write about a color, and the color that I chose was black. I shared the poem I wrote with my grandmother, who worked at Belzer Middle School at the time, and she took it to work with her and shared it with Camea Davis, a new teacher to Belzer who taught a poetry elective and an English class. I ended up going to Belzer to participate in a slam that they were holding that year, and ever since that first slam I fell in love with the art form and couldn’t get enough. In the fourth grade, I wrote in two separate poetry composition notebooks, and competed in the slam at Belzer again and won! Camea Davis became a mentor for me, and through the slams at Belzer I also met Lauren Hall who has become another mentor for me. They pushed me to continue writing and keep competing in slams and performing at open mics, they told me about Brave New Voices, and once I really got into writing poetry I never stopped. The art form just clicked for me, it was like something I never knew I needed, and with my mentors continuously showing me new opportunities to go further with the art form, I did.
NS: You are the current Youth Poet Laureate of Indianapolis. What does that title mean, and what are some of your duties or responsibilities as such?
AG: Youth Poet Laureate is a title that combines civic leadership and literary excellence, and as the Youth Poet Laureate of Indianapolis I have the responsibility not only to use my writing and poetic ability as a tool for change, but also a part of my duties is to participate in a community service project. This year we have been working with IPS and are trying to provide more opportunities for IPS students to get involved with the poetry community here and gain more access to the art form.
NS: You also have an interest in social justice, and this comes through in your poetry as well. When you write, do you write with a particular audience and purpose in mind?
AG: When I write I do not always write with a specific audience in mind, but I always write with a specific purpose. With each poem that I write I usually have something in mind that I want to do with the poem and I write with a certain intention that drives the piece. When I edit, I have another opportunity to be very intentional and think about my purpose and I tend to think about my audience during this step as well. A common saying we have in the slam community is “Remember why you wrote it,” so the performance is yet another time that I am intentional about my audience and purpose.
NS: In addition to issues of social justice, you are also involved in photography and acting. What are some of the differences for you personally among these art forms? Do you prefer certain forms for certain modes of expression, etc. ?
AG: As an artist, for me it is important that I appreciate and acknowledge all of my own intersectionality within the realm of art; I am not only a poet, but a black female poet from Lawrence Township. I extend this same line of thinking to all of my art. In everything I do I try to be conscious of the narrative I create, and the ways I can use my art as a force for positive change. I would say as a photographer, my voice and vision are very similar to that within my poetry. I love photographing black people, and I enjoy street photography as well. Though my voice and vision are consistent, my photography is different than my poetry in the sense that when I write I get to paint worlds and scenarios with words onto a blank canvas, and as a photographer I prefer to take an everyday scenario or everyday people or something old and show it in a new way through differences of perspective. In both cases I aim to present something old in a new way, but in poetry I also do a lot of creating, whereas in photography it’s more so re-constructing.
I also act. I am in love with musical theatre, but at the moment I’m only a double-threat (acting and singing). With my performing, I really get to step outside of myself while still bringing to the table the same emotions and thoughts and motivations and joys and pains that I have, breathing them into new characters. A force that really motivates my acting is empathy, which is also a tool to evoke social change. Through acting I was also able to really learn about the world of theatre firsthand, which opened up yet another important medium that I have been drawn to; playwriting.
Usually, when inspiration first strikes, poetry is my go-to, simply because I am so familiar with the art form and I have been writing for so long. It’s a bit quicker for me to shape a poem to fulfill my intention and to satisfy my inspiration, but a lot of times I end up wanting to take the written poetry and approach it through a different form, and that’s where the other mediums come in: when a poem isn’t enough, or when what I need to do can’t be done with a poem. I would say that I am still poetic in my tone and approach to all other forms of art, just because the poetry came first for me, but I love expressing myself and creating and perpetuating activism in any diverse way that is possible. I love discovering new types of expression and creation.
NS: What are you excited about right now and/or what is giving you joy?
AG: Right now I am very excited about a one-act play that I wrote and am getting the chance to produce through my school as a student-led play. Fall travel lacrosse is in season now as well, and I am really enjoying the extra playing and practice. I have also been going to cycle, and I am completely obsessed with it; it really helps me to relieve stress, clear my mind, and stay focused.