WEDU Arts Plus

S10 E10 | CLIP

1010: Liz Prisley

Liz Prisley, Tampa poet, performer and educator uses her experiences in her spoken word poems and helps others find their voice along the way.

AIRED: May 13, 2021 | 0:07:31

Hello, I'm Dalia Colon, and this is "WEDU Arts Plus."

For Liz Prisley, finding her voice meant learning the rules

of poetry and then unlearning them.

The Citrus Park resident is part

of Tampa Bay's spoken-word community,

a group of performance poets using the power of words

to speak truth on their own terms.

- I wrote my first suicide note at the age of 13.

By 15, I'd composed an entire notebook.

My 10th grade English teacher thought that I was troubled,

but no number of parent-teacher conferences

could find a solution.

See, I was mourning a loss I hadn't yet identified,

struggling with an identity I didn't yet understand.

Tell me, what does it mean to be a woman?

So I have a poem called "Suicide Note."

I was looking back at middle school, high school

creative writing that I found in a folder

when I was cleaning out a drawer

and was trying to remember it,

'cause nothing was that hard in my life.

My parents were still happily married.

We had a happy home.

See, when I was six, I measured my self worth

in fireflies, blanket forts, and kisses from my dad.

And I was like, "What was I so upset about at 13?"

And so I was trying to think what was going on.

And the more I dug, the more I realized

that I was grappling with being found physically attractive

for the first time and being sexualized

as a middle and high school girl.

And it just weighed really heavily on me,

trying to figure out how to navigate the world as a person.

See, by 16 I'd exchanged fireflies for desire shining

in boys' eyes, blanket forts for some spindly teenage arms

and daddy kisses for foreign lips of approval,

where satisfaction is found in the meeting of lips,

the pressing of hips, the probing

of somebody else's fingertips into places

that I didn't know were ever mine to begin with.

And so I think some of the lines in that poem resonate

with a lot of women who've had similar experiences.

My name's Liz Prisley.

I'm a spoken-word poet and the executive director

of Heard Em Say Youth Arts Collective,

a non-profit that empowers young people

through creative arts and spoken-word poetry.

I've always enjoyed poetry, but it wasn't

until I found spoken word that it resonated more.

A lot of academic poetry spaces made me feel

like I couldn't talk about my lived experiences,

or I feel passionately about kind of this

social justice lens to talking about poetry,

and that was really absent from a lot of my college

and high school poetry spaces.

And so it wasn't until that element was there

in the spoken-word community

that it just really connected for me, I think.

- One of the things that I love the most

about this community is the diversity of the art forms

and the number of young emerging artists,

and I guess I would put Liz in that category,

that are kind of bubbling up.

Especially as we're coming out of this pandemic,

to be able to give voice to your fears,

to the anxiety we've experienced, to the isolation,

to everything, what a wonderful role

for poets to play in this, and this is kind of Liz's thing.

She really wants to kind of bridge those gaps

and open up more people.

And, of course, her work with Heard Em Say,

working with youth, has been great.

- I've been an educator of some kind since grad school.

So I thought I was gonna study to teach college English

and essay writing, and then I'd always loved poetry,

and I got into spoken word.

And so I thought, okay, let me use my educator

teaching abilities in this space too, and I think some

of those degrees helped me get in the door in spaces

where the community wanted to teach spoken word,

but that educator background helped open that door.

And so then I started working with Wally B,

who founded Heard Em Say back in 2007,

and I joined him in 2012, and it's been magic ever since.

- Liz comes from the kind of traditional academic side

of poetry, whereas, with people like myself,

I'm from the contemporary spoken-word art side.

And so one of the areas that I've worked on

as a teaching artist is helping to bridge that gap.

And so meeting Liz was really a great revelation

and opportunity to really understand the inner workings

of the academic side.

- 'Cause since the age of 13, I have been slowly

killing myself with these beauty magazines as blades dragged

up my wrists, or push-up bra straps wrapped around my neck,

fumes of perfume and synthetic desire choking my breath.

My manifesto became my poetry.

It is the only suicide note that I have ever left,

and with my own hand on the trigger,

holding this gun to my temple, will somebody tell me,

is this what it means to be a woman?

- The thing that I really love is

she is fearless in all areas.

She's not afraid to hold herself accountable,

and she's not afraid to hold you accountable.

No matter who you are, she will check your privilege

because she's not afraid to check her privilege.

She's not afraid to utilize her privilege and position

and the things that she has at her advantage

in a way to advocate and serve as an ally

for other groups and individuals.

- An internal memorandum to all white people,

myself included.

I love the audience reaction of snaps when a line resonates.

Nobody needs our tears or our guilt

or our ignorance or our disbelief.

Making racism all about us is only harming the very people

we are claiming to help.

So I find I do that in my life now,

just when I'm listening to something, I'm like,

(fingers snapping) "Oh, yeah, tell me more about that"

with snaps, which is maybe weird for a non-poetry audience.

We have to stop hiding our hatred behind self-defense.

We have to stop pretending like we don't know the rules

when we wrote them.

We have to stop painting God in our own image.

You just can't replicate the vibe of an audience

who's supporting you and cheering you on

and clapping for you, and then walking into that crowd

afterwards and having people say, "Oh, that was so great.

"Thank you so much for that," or the conversations

that get sparked afterwards are just so fulfilling

and so affirming, and it's really hard

to replicate that on Zoom.

But gone is the glow of fireflies,

and if I could only find that blanket to cover this skin,

if daddy ever knew where this mouth has been, well,

it's probably why he stopped giving kisses years ago.

My advice for creatives would be to just trust yourself.

I think if you're a creative, you're going to create

if you give yourself space.

Often times we're just over-scheduled and drained

and exhausted, and that is not ideal creative time.

And so I think carving out as much of your day as possible

to be creative and then just believe in whatever you create,

even if you think it's awful at the time,

because I think everything sounds funny until it doesn't,

and it sounds awful until it hits.

And I think just trusting yourself

and giving yourself the space to write terribly

until it's good, because it will be.

'Cause since the age of 13, I have been mourning the loss

of my ability to ever be a woman, and now at 34,

I am struggling to decide if I could ever just be.

(wistful piano music)

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