Growth and nurturing, the creation
of a community that supports each other is the concept Dj Watson, Professor
of English and Black Studies at San Diego City College took with her to
conceptualize and create her writerz workshop - Writerz Block, a successful
poetry/music venue in downtown San Diego. It is based on the model of the
World Stage and also holds characteristics of the Togu Na. This excerpt
from our interview highlights these notions of the importance of security
and nurturing in a Black space.
Lisa: tell me the
history of Writerz block? How did it come about?
Dj: I was at SDSU in their MFA program, and found that few people were able to critique my work-- it had to do with culture (or the lack of)...I was writing about the middle passage, exploring suicide, infanticide and various ways of existence and also exploring spiritual existence.
I met my co-conspirator, Jahson Edmonds at the Community Actors Theatre, and saw what he was trying to do with no backing and no money. I also found out that he was applying to the MFA program at SDSU, and I wanted him to have some support for his work as well. Jahson was hosting open mike sessions - trying to provide a venue for young people to voice their creativity, their words, their work, their wonder of the world, where there was none. I can look around...there was a time when communities vested time energy and money to provide a space for young people to discover who they were... that doesn't exist now... right now at least.
Lisa: So how did
you begin to conceptualize Writerz Block as a venue for this absence of
DJ: I began to conceptualize Writerz Block a long time ago, I thought it would be a community space to do spoken word, theater, music etc. I talked with Cecile Pineda and Sandra Alcosser - a novelist and poet respectively - about what to do as far as getting criticism of my own work Cecile told me to start a workshop, and Sandra was in favor of it also especially in the San Diego community where Writerz of color have a difficult time getting feedback.
DJ: I seemed to have to educate my audience culturally...they were white predominantly- you know inside the academy and all, although the few people of color in the program knew what I was talking about.
Lisa: So you wanted
this space to be safe for Writerz of color..?
DJ: for everybody of course, but especially Writerz of color 'cause we aren't usually supported, and rarely understood.
Lisa: So, how did
the model of the World Stage in Los Angeles affect your development of
DJ: ahh..the World Stage in the Crenshaw district...I think I went there, I cant remember when, but it was like church, like a church for artists. The creative espiritus was there. Everyone was groovin' on each others words, like we were all being fed spiritual manna - it was/is most cool. This was/is a space so full of water for the dry soul and after being in the MFA program, it was wonderful to not have to explain what I was sayin' to nobody - could be my self -and people could relate, I was in my own tribe.
So, I first talked to Peter J. Harris (Artist-in-residence, Office Black Student Affairs, Claremont Colleges) about doing something like that in Dago and he was all for it. He told me to talk with Mike Datcher, who was one of the primary organizers of the Stage. I called Mike and told him what I was thinking about doing and that I had worked out at the stage and found it most irie. Then, Jahson and I rolled up to LA one evening and interviewed Mike, and got the 411 of the history of the stage. One of the most important features was the "no bullshit" rule which we have instituted at Writerz Block.
Lisa: Explain your
take on the "no bullshit" rule
DJ: Keep it real...be critical...develop a community of Writerz who help each other grow through critique/through feedback. A community of artists who trust each other to be critical cause the world is no joke...if you are comin' you got to come correct - that type thing. The people who are serious about their work love it, although criticism is something you have to get used to. That is one good thing I can say about going through an MFA program. You will get criticized...at least you should...the problem with me and other Writerz of color is that the "other" people would say "it's beautiful and rhythmic...but what does it mean?" and I did not have time to teach them and furthermore, I felt like they should educate themselves.
Lisa: What about
Writerz block makes it a community?
DJ: Consistency- for one thing, we have only been working out together since the spring of '98 and already we have people who consistently come for critique, open mike, and the featured artist spot. Angela Boyce, Zenani Mzube, Layla Aziz, Jah Son Edmonds. . .
Lisa: So does that
imply there is a need?
DJ: Definitely. I would list other people but I swear my brain is mush right now...but there are at least 10 people who come consistently, and people have asked me to do it on the weekend - but I am not trying to die prematurely.
Lisa: Why do you
think they come?
DJ: They come because it is church, they come because they want to sharpen their writing and performing skills.
Lisa: What do you
mean when you say "church" - for those not in the know. . .
DJ: Well church is a place where the spirit moves you, and at these type venues...the spirit moves you or you can say you become inspired. You go home and are fired up and want to write your ass off.
Lisa: Why would I
want that, even as someone who does not consider themselves an artist?
DJ: Possibly because you are experiencing spiritual death? You are becoming dead because you are uninspired.- not dead/not alive...unable to feel...to express.
Lisa: Is the Block
effective in everything you wanted it to be, and in what ways? and How
do you know?
DJ: Yes...It lets me give back and it allows me to take. On another level, It is spreading among the campus community and the San Diego community at large - we are getting much respect from other writing groups and we are creating a venue for all Writerz. It also allows me to teach folks how to critique...its ultimate value to the revision process
why is revision important? For that matter, why is learning how to critique
important for the Black community?
Dj: Revision...re-seeing, cause the work doesn't always flow the way you want it to - it also makes you aware of your audience your readers and if they are grooving on your shit.
Lisa: Maybe the q
I'm asking is.. why is revision important in a community sense
DJ: Most Writerz want people to understand their work - that is the main point of writing it down and also publication. - which is an aspect that we want to develop. - In the community sense, revision is important when conceptualizing a world community. We want to create a space where we can learn to talk to each other about what is fucked up in the world, about what we can to to build together to fix it... sharing our words, our private thoughts/pains with each other is a way to begin to re-see the future of ourselves. Our future.... One of the things that Writerz Block will do is publish its Writerz on the Ethiop's Ear, and we also want to put together an anthology of Writerz Block poets, et al - we'll get there, oh... also, what we are looking for right now is a permanent space to hold the Block. We want to bring poets from the Stage and other venues around the nation to San Diego -we also pay artists for the featured artist spot.
Lisa: Why pay?
DJ: I firmly believe that artist should get paid -cause they produce work that is very important to the community. and it reinforces the "keep on pushin'" concept that seems to be lost somehow at the turn of the Gregorian calendar's century.
DJ: We are coming up on 2000 according to the Gregorian calendar. (although there are other calendars in existence.) But we need to pay in order to encourage artists to know their work is valued in the monetary sense, and if they work, they CAN do this for a living.
Lisa: The only other
question I have is ... how do you think this has helped you as an artist
DJ: Oh boy...I get inspired by the artists that perform and work out at Writerz Block. I get inspired when I see an idea set in motion - I feel like I'm a mentat...having drunk the juice of Sapphron (that's a metaphor cause my brain isn't functioning) I get inspired knowing that one time some young brothers came over from Hoover High school and worked out on the mike, they know they have a place to go...to be....that is the work that I do. and I can die happy knowing that I helped create Writerz Block.
DJ: The only other
thing I need to say is...the phrase "Writerz Block" has a dual meaning.
Lisa: What does it mean?
DJ: For one thing people say "are we having Writerz Block"? and I say yes...itz a way of claiming it.. saying, "yeah I have it too!" - so that big ass scary mental block isn't so paralyzing cause we Writerz/artist types go through stages, whereas sometimes they cant write. Yet, when you have a place like Writerz block, we can connect what is happening in our lives as to why we are blocked in our writing process. You can make connections between your life, and your mental block. - just by calling its Writerz Block you can claim it.. its not scary.. you have other people who can talk about how paralyzing it can be.. you have a community of Writerz who you can talk to about your life.. and why you can't write.. or why you need to be writing.. etc.
The other side is the slave block thing... sometimes I have these visions of slave block... we can step up on the block and make it new. We can recalim that space too. Our space.. our block.... our writing "hood", our writing community, we re-claim it... the community is ours and we are responsible for it.
The new space for Writerz Block will be off Ray Street in Northpark.
For more information about Writerz Block click here (this will take you away from the 357 project.. don't get lost now! )