An Interview with Storyteller Lenelle Moïse

As part of our ongoing efforts to increase visibility of women* artists, StateraArts is coordinating International Support Women Artists Now/SWAN Day 2019, and the SWAN Day Calendar is jam packed with incredible events.  One such event is Haiti Glass: A Concert Reading by poet, performer, playwright Lenelle Moïse.  In a synthesis of original musical compositions and poems from her book, Haiti Glass, Lenelle moves deftly between memories of growing up as a Haitian immigrant in the suburbs of Boston to intellectual, playful explorations of pop culture enigmas.  Haiti Glass lays bare a world of resistance and survival, beauty, and queer grace.  Statera Ambassador, Sabrina Cofield, reached out to Lenelle to find out what inspires this powerhouse of an artist, the importance of feminism and body image, and how she uses her storytelling to open hearts, including her own. 

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Sabrina Cofield: How did you discover poetry/writing?  
Lenelle Moïse: I started writing and drawing in spiral notebooks at age five. I grew up in a tough neighborhood and I wasn’t allowed to play outside. I wrote to entertain myself. I also have a vivid memory of finding my mother’s handheld mini-cassette tape recorder. I spent hours in my room, voicing all the parts of a made up radio show. I played the male and female hosts, the special guests, the musical acts. I even included commercial breaks.

SC: What is your writing process? Do you schedule time to write or do you stop what you’re doing or wake up in the middle of the night when inspired?
LM: Poetry does yank me out of sleep sometimes! Or, out of nowhere, a line stops me in my tracks. I carry a journal everywhere, ready to record observations, epiphanies, or the unexpected things I overhear. I don’t need a specific space or time of day to work but I feel happiest when I write every day. I love those moments of urgent flow but editing is more important. 

SC: You write both poetry and plays.  Do they manifest in different ways or serve a different creative outlet for you? 
LM: I’m a storyteller. My stories come in many forms—verse, dialogue, prose, collages, movement, music. I want to communicate with all the tools in my toolbox. Sometimes I start with what I think is a poem and then—in the middle of memorizing the text—a melody appears. This happened with the title poem of my book, Haiti Glass. On the page, it’s a short, sharp poem—thirty-four words in twelve lines. But when I started rehearsing it, the poem became a two-minute song! On paper, the line “pronouncing the distance” is six syllables. When I sing it, the word “distance” extends for twelve seconds. That way the audience can feel how far I really mean! I think a lot about how to translate my line breaks in performance. Sometimes that means a dramatic pause, or holding a note, or repeating a word, or transforming into another character. Generally, poetry is how I organize and convey my own point of view. Whereas, playwriting, is an exercise in empathy. Sometimes I create characters I disagree with—people who make choices I might not make. I want to understand those choices.

SC: Your writing is so bold, covering some very provocative topics, why do you feel that’s so important to explore?
LM:
I’m always a little surprised when my work is called “provocative.” Is it because I write about black girls, poor folks, and queer desire? For me, these topics are central and universal. We all have race, class, and yearning. I write about the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen, the moments that haunt me, the world I refuse to unsee. This is how I keep my heart open. I want my readers and audience members to feel open-hearted, too.

SC: Do you consider yourself a feminist?  If so, what does that mean to you?
LM: I consider myself a feminist because I question authority, insist on freedom, strive for equality, and imagine peace. I also really care about bodies. Do we feel safe in our bodies? Do we feel seen? Are people denying or disrespecting us because of the labels they tag onto our bodies? Are we healthy? Have we eaten? Do we have shelter? Do we feel included? Satisfied? Celebrated? Free? These are my feminist concerns. 

SC: You’re also a composer and have released several CDs, is there anything you can’t do! Talk to me about your music.
LM: Thanks for listening! Music is a very visceral and organic process for me. I use a loop machine to layer sounds—rolling trills, mouth-made clicks, high-pitched squeaks, melody, harmony, and breath. I think of my hands, feet, and voice as instruments. I want to sound like earth, fire, flowers, and guts.

SC: You’re performing a concert reading on April 5th in West Palm Beach, Florida what can audiences expect?
LM: Yes! I’m thrilled to bring my work to the Norton Museum of Art. My event is part of their Art After Dark series on Friday, April 5th. It’s free. I’ll offer a set of original poetry and all-vocal music. Audiences can expect to sigh, laugh, lean in, and nod along to mouth-made beats. I’m also leading two workshops at the Norton: “All Together: Self-Expression and Social Change” on April 6th, and “Embody Language: Voice and Movement for Poets” on April 7th. https://www.norton.org/search?q=lenelle+moise

SC: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given about being an artist or writer?
LM: Keep going.

Haiti Glass - A Concert Reading is on April 5th at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.  Learn more on the SWAN Day Calendar.  


Lenelle Moïse has been called “a Renaissance woman in the arts,” “an electrifying performer,” and “a powerhouse.” She is a poet, a playwright, and a songwriter. She is an immigrant and a feminist. Moïse wrote the book Haiti Glass, a winner of the 2015 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature. The Lambda Literary Review hailed it “poetry to be savored, then devoured, then shared.” Moïse was the 2017 Lucille Geier Lakes Writer-in-Residence at Smith College as well as a 2017 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellow in Dramatic Writing. Her Ruby Prize-winning play Merit, was featured on the 2016 Kilroys List. She wrote, composed, and co-starred in the Off-Broadway drama Expatriate. She was a Huntington Theatre Company Playwriting Fellow and a Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. She has performed across the USA and Canada—at theatres, colleges, high schools, bookstores, arts festivals, cafes, a barbershop in Texas, a sports stadium in New Orleans, Central Park in New York, and at the United Nations. For more information, please visit lenellemoise.com