IN SHARON’S OWN WORDS…Thanks to marriages, divorces and scandals I have 6 parents. I love them each madly, and am really proud of the work that we have done as a family. Crazy as we are, hard as it’s been, we each in our own way have chosen Love. My daughter therefore gets to have an expansive family that includes not only our chosen family, but our blood relatives. And she, at 29, is stronger, smarter, more gifted and Loving than all of us combined. Which of course is our answered Prayer.
I am proud to say that a lot of Artists call me Pa/Auntie/Mom/mentor. Always, as a mentor, I grow. Always, the mentees swing back and help me move forward. I name some of the artists that I count as mentees in Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia, and the Austin Project, University of Texas Press. I am one of the Editors of this book. It includes my Finding Voice Facilitation Manual (for Facilitators). Currently my focus is on making work vs. facilitating workshops. So I’ve decided to write an Artist’s Manual. A workbook. Some of the writing exercises from my upcoming Artist’s Manual are featured in Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, Dos Gatos Press.
TMI about me is on my website at: http://sharonbridgforth.com but I do want to mention that I am a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2009. I am a writer working in the Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic. My piece, blood pudding, was produced in the 2010 New York SummerStage Festival. I am the 2010 – 2012 Visiting Multicultural Faculty member at The Theatre School at DePaul University. And I am the proud RedBone Press author: of love conjure/blues and the Lambda Literary Award-winning the bull-jean stories.
How long have you been writing and how did this passion begin?
I started writing when I was 15 years old. I remember the moment that I decided to write. I was really depressed. I turned to writing as a way to survive/to breathe through extremely hard times. I have been avid reader for as long as I can remember. As a child I spent a lot of time in the library, so by age 15, I had discovered and fallen in love with Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni and many other great Black writers. Turning to writing during crisis was an organic response. I remember that right before I wrote my first poem, I was reading the Song of Solomon from the King James version of the Bible. I found it so heartbreakingly beautiful, that I was inspired to pick up my pen.
Give a brief description of your book, the bull-jean stories.
the bull-jean stories is a series of linked stories about one Soul’s Journey through many life times trying to learn her life lesson, to Love herself.
Tell us about bull-jean as a character.
bull-jean is a woman identified Southern Black butch bulldagga who lives, and speaks from her heart. I believe that poetry is the language of the heart, so bull-jean always speaks in poetry or song. It was very important to me that bull-jean was able to fully feel and articulate her feelings, and that she unlearn internalized sexism. I wanted her to truly treasure women. To know how to treat women in a way that expressed not only her desire, but her respect, admiration and support of them.
Why was bull-jean always in search of love?
I believe in Earth based traditions of understanding the cycles of life. That our Souls come here to grow. That we return many times. That we each have many areas in our Soul’s evolution that require growth. For most of us, self-Love is number one. bull-jean thought she was searching for Love. And she was. But it was The Divine Love inside of her, not love from another, that was her Soul’s quest. By the end of the book, I believe that she learns that life lesson. To know Love, to be Love, to give Love is to embody The Divine. Which means that we can’t fully be ourselves until we are containers for Love. I don’t think anything is more important than this. Truthfully, the bottom line reason that bull-jean was always in search of love is that through bull-jean I was working on my biggest life lesson, which has been to learn to Love myself.
Do you embody any of bull-jean’s personality?
Lawd yes. Always, I write to understand, heal, transform my own life. What I know is that in Black traditions I is always We. That the artist’s job is to name, lift, and express the collective. So I am clear that the more honest, open, vulnerable, and specific I am, the better I can serve.
I am 53. I was raised in South Central L.A. by people that migrated from the South. I didn’t grow up with models or even words that described how I felt in my gender and sexuality. So when I should have outgrown being a tomboy, but was still one. When I had crushes on my mom’s female friends. When I didn’t have the same social and fashion aspirations as other girls. Being me was just wrong. Words like lesbian and butch did not become part of my world until I was thirty. Even then, those words seemed to describe white women. Not me. With the bull-jean stories I wanted to explore what it means to be a Southern Spirited Black butch lesbian. I needed to understand how to Love myself.
Do you think the black lesbian is a respected figure in the South?
I think this question calls for a more complicated answer than I can give here.
I will say that with the bull-jean stories I wanted to imagine a Southern Black butch lesbian that was part of the community, not separate from it. I read a lot of biographies, autobiographies and history books related to Black blues and jazz singers and musicians. I know that Black lesbians have always been present, active, and out in our communities. I think that what the experience is like, how respected we’ve been depends on a lot of factors.
What’s been the reaction to doing the bull-jean stories in front of an audience?
I’ve had fabulous experiences in front of audiences with bull-jean. I really enjoy making people laugh, and she is a good one for that. People of all backgrounds and experiences seem to relate to her. the bull-jean stories was published in 1998, so I don’t read from it as often as I used to. The book is taught at universities all over the country, and a lot of scholars have written about it so that is of course an extreme honor. One that is a very helpful to my career and to RedBone Press. I am extremely proud that a young Dallas based artist named Q Ragsdale is has created, produced and is touring a multi-media adaptation of the bull-jean stories (http://www.bull-jean.com/content/Home.html). So bull-jean has new audiences and a whole new life out there on the road that people are responding beautifully to.
You grew up in South Central Los Angeles, yet Southern sensibilities are the heart and soul of your works with the bull-jean stories and love conjure/blues. Is that the influence of your Memphis, Tennessee family roots?
My South Central L.A. was really a Black Southern village, minus the communal feel. Everyone for miles had migrated from the South. None of the kids that I knew in my neighborhood were actually born there. Including me. I was actually born in Chicago. A lot of the folk migrating (usually defined by train routes) went from Memphis to Chicago. Our ending up in L.A. was a fluke (long story). My mom is from Memphis, my dad is from Algiers Louisiana (Louisiana and Texas folk commonly migrated to L.A.). My heart voice is Southern. I spent a lot of time in Memphis when I was young. I didn’t grow up with my Dad, but I have blood memories from that side of my family (which were confirmed at age 15, when I started hanging out with him).
My earliest artistic influences are my family: my mother’s laughter, uncle June Bug in the kitchen singing to emphasize whatever truth he was stretching; the sounds of finger popping, bid whist, fried chicken, Bobby Blue Bland; whispers of tears floating in from another room. My Auntie Bea telling me over and over and over the same stories/which I now understand was our family history. I feel that I am of an age that is holding pieces of our collective story that will be forever gone if we don’t tell it. I feel that my job is to tell it as best I can.
Was being an award-winning author (Lambda, 1998) and playwright a dream you envisioned for yourself? What did you want to be growing up?
I used to think I’d be a teacher. Two of my Great Aunts in Memphis were teachers, and you know in those days that was a highly respected vocation for a Black woman. However, I had no real direction growing up. Me and a bunch of friends picked the college we went to because the recruiter was cute. It took me ten years to receive my B.A. Like many kids raised away from the home place, I was a club kid, a street runner, a wild child. The Ancestors and the Angel truly watched over me. I was 30, had just moved to Austin, TX when I started sharing my work. It happened by accident. I was chasing after a pretty woman who happened to belong to a women’s theatre group. I had two suitcases of work that I had not shared up to that point. Once I experienced my work in theatre, everything synched up and accelerated. That was the beginning of a lot of determination and hard work.
How did coming out after being married and having a child change your perspective on love and relationships?
I married my best friend because that was the best I thought life would give me. I didn’t know I was a lesbian because I had no context for what I felt about women. We were “born again” at the time, and were just trying to do our best to be good Christians. When I found out I was pregnant I felt that the only thing I could truly give my child was the gift of knowing that she could make her dreams come true. That meant that I had to figure out what my dreams were, and get to work on them. I still didn’t have context for loving women, but I was able to articulate that I wanted to be with a woman not a man. It took a minute but I got a divorce, fell away from church, went back to college, finally got my degree and began focusing on writing (though I didn’t share my work right away). My daughter has only known me to be a lesbian. Her father and I and our families raised her together. Two of my parents that I mentioned earlier are his blood parents. When I came out my mom went nuts. It took us ten years to work through it. In retrospect I learned the power of forgiveness. Kindness. Patience. Boundaries. Self-Love. Truth. Risk. Freedom. I learned to look at my part in things. And that physical, mental, emotional and Spiritual wellness is an essential daily practice. It’s all a process. I feel like a warrior/have scars from the Journey. But I value the fight.
As a poet, how does your inspiration to write find you?
I write from my heart. As one of my mentors, Laurie Carlos says, “everything is already in the room.” Basically as long as I am paying attention, inspiration is infinite.
Explain what being a writer in the theatrical jazz aesthetic entails.
the bull-jean stories is a blues text. It does not live in a Jazz Aesthetic. Blues is the base of jazz, so blues is key in my work. Blues is my heart voice. I am a theatre artist that works in a Jazz Aesthetic. I think of the page as a musical score. The text is the music. My work cycles in African concepts of time. The past-the present-the future-the living-the dead-and the unborn co-exist. Dissonance and layering of time creates the rhythms that move the story. Like jazz music, the audience/the reader function as witness-participants. Has to work. Is responsible for the outcome/the experience. Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones is the leading scholar (and is a practitioner) of the Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic. She is lead editor of Experiments In A Jazz Aesthetic. I posted an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Jazz Ase and the Power of the Present Moment, on my website http://sharonbridgforth.com/content/theatrical-jazz-aesthetic/theatrical-jazz-aesthetic. I usually call on her to talk about the Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic (she wrote the forward to love conjure/blues) but what I’ll say here is that the aesthetic assumes that virtuosity, improvisation, innovation, the art of being present, listening, the fluidity of time and space, witnessing, breath, contrasting rhythms, synchronicity, circular forms, polyphony, transformation and rigorous practice are a given. That the process is as important as the outcome. That work is made of Prayer. Life. Spirit. Blood Memory. Revolution. Birthed in African-American culture. It is inter-disciplinary. It is ritual. It is service. Like jazz music, The Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic documents, builds, nurtures, extends and celebrates humanity/liberation and dignity of all people globally.
It’s obvious teaching and mentoring are your passions. What knowledge do you share with your students as the Visiting Multicultural Faculty member at the Theatre School at DePaul University?
I have had the Divine opportunity to develop long-term ongoing relationships with individuals, communities, organizations and institutions around the country since 1993. Formally I’ve focused on helping people develop a practice of being present. This begins with the work of walking participants through a process of giving voice to identity-culture-memory-family histories-dreams to articulate and examine the socio-political realities of their lives. I feel that artistic voice expands in the examination of the personal. That the personal is political and that it is the site of our greatest power.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I have been a touring artist since 1993. I’ve been a self-employed artist since 1998. I do work in different cities, for varying lengths of time. No matter where I am or what the focus of my service/more or less on a typical day….
I wake two hours before I need to jump into work. I sit with my strong strong coffee and read Spiritual texts (I’m Transdenominational so I am wide open in my interpretation of what that means). I Pray, meditate. I drink fresh juice (that I juice myself if possible), and take all my various supplements and special wellness products. I give email, Face Book and Twitter a once over. Shower, dress (TMI I’m sure). I talk to my partner (we’ve been long distance for three years), I call my Mom. Then, I’m ready to get into the day. At some point in the afternoon I talk to my daughter (she lives in L.A.). Every day I devote some time to my administrate work: grant writing, work related correspondence, loading web context, returning phones calls, etc. Some days I teach classes, visit classes, do readings, and/or facilitate creative circles. Some days I’m in rehearsals or production related work. Though I don’t write everyday, I am always in process. Everyday I feed my writing by reading, listening to music & podcasts, having conversations with art-family members (like Daniel Alexander Jones), and looking at images that relate to whatever might stir my work. It takes me a LONG time to complete a text. Since I am a theatre artist I need the work to be embodied a few times before I can complete it. For instance, once I have a working draft I seek opportunities for table readings, workshop productions, and productions. I am usually working on at least two pieces in different stages of development. At the end of each day, I talk to my partner, read, watch a bit of bad TV, read and pray.
What is your favorite book? Favorite author?
Currently my favorite book is, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of American’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. It really hard to name only one book, so I want to throw in that I loved reading: Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful, by Susan Fales-Hill. Loving In The War Years, by Cherrie Moraga saved my life. I thought Staceyann Chin’s, The Other Side of Paradise, was perfection. And I am a serious fan of all the RedBone Press authors. If I had to pick only one author to say is my favorite, always, it’s Walter Mosley. I am passionately in love with his Easy Rawlins, Leonid McGill, Fearless Jones, Ptolemy Grey, and Socrates Fortlow Series. Also his book, 47, is simply brilliant. I feel that Mr. Mosley writes with precision and grace about people like those that raised me. Hard living, big hearted, Soulful, working people. Smart, worldly Black Southerns giving their all for a better life. Honestly, I get teary just thinking about it. lol…
What piece of advice can you share with aspiring writers?
Focus on the work. The work is your road map. Surround yourself with like-minded individuals that support and “see” you. Work rigorously on your craft. However, be careful where you place yourself (with your work). It is really important to be in writing circles, to share and exchange work, but you must make sure that you are not casting your pearls before swine. Create the life you want to live. Learn how to manage your money. Take care of yourself, you are the instrument that the work happens through. Be clear about what your creative process is, so that you can facilitate your work effectively. I.E. for many of us, cleaning the house is part of our creative process. If that is true for you, clean that house! Mindfully. Mostly, our job is to dream. Ultimately, everything you need is already inside you. Gather the tools, support, and experiences you need to get out of your own way. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s not about you.
Why do you feel it’s important for black lesbian to tell their own stories, as you did with the bull-jean stories?
We must name ourselves. It is up to us to leave an accurate blueprint of what our lives are like. We must be the mirror we seek. As the Hopi said, “we are the ones we are waiting for.” Your story just might save some body’s life. It really is that important.
Interviewed January 2012
Sharon Bridgforth’s Reviews