The West Hollywood Gateway, located at 7100 Santa Monica Boulevard, showcases poets for National Poetry Month each year. WeHo residents can encounter poetry in their daily lives with excerpts from poems currently being showcased on the Gateway’s main digital billboard. This year, the gateway added three new poets. Former City Poet Laureate Steven Reigns is highlighting each poet to add to the profiles he made last year. Below, is a Q&A with poet Shonda Buchanan.
Name: Shonda Buchanan (She/Hers)
Poetic works: Who’s Afraid of Black Indians?; Equipoise: Poems from Goddess Country; Voices from Leimert Park I & II.
How many years in Los Angeles?
In total, 23 years. Since 1987, I’ve either lived here or spent swaths of time coveting LA and its stories, and finding poetry in every nook and cranny.
What can you tell us about the excerpt on the West Hollywood Gateway Billboard?
First of all, thank you, Steven Reigns, for being the mastermind behind the Poetry Month WEHO Gateway Billboard! How amazing! My excerpt on the billboard is from a poem in my book of poetry, Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? and is the precursor to my memoir, Black Indian, sharing stories about my family’s heritage and oral narrative of being mixed race, African American, American Indian and European: “Since 1830, every year on the U.S. Census my third great grandfather disappeared in his skin. First Indian, then Mulatto in 1840, in 1850, he was eventually white. What were we?” These narratives explore that duality caused by America’s race-related laws that splintered families of color across the country since the 1500s, on and off American Indian reservations and slave plantations where Africans (renamed Negro, Colored, Black, African American) lived incredibly hard lives. We’re still suffering from the effects of that enslavement heritage. Look at Black Lives Matter.
Does the West Hollywood Gateway or WEHO have any significance for you?
West Hollywood is where my cousin, Cliff Stafford, lived and worked when he came to Los Angeles in the 80s to break into the movie business. He was like a God to me because he was a beautiful, sweet man. Cliff was an extra on Good Times and other TV shows and movies before he died of AIDS in Cedar Sinai. It was a sad, scary time for us, and the gay community at large in West Hollywood and LA County. I write poems about Cliff and how he impacted my life with his good heart.
When and how did poetry find you?
Poetry found me. No, really. When I was 9, I found a book of poetry, ‘I am the Darker Brother’, in my cousin’s (not Cliff) basement when I was staying there for the weekend. Then I ‘accidentally’ stole that book, although I really thought I was only borrowing it. The book of Harlem Renaissance and New Negro Movement poets shook me, changed my life forever and made me the social justice poet I am today. I think my cousin got a hefty book fine from the Lansing Public Library but he never made me pay him back.
What has been a big poetry career moment?
I’ve had so many amazing moments as a poet, yet the event I just curated for The Broad on April 9, ‘When We Dream in Bittersweet Tongues,’ was such a fantastic multi-ethnic, multi-narrative experience. I’m also curating an event for Grand Performances on August 25, so put that on your calendar!
Why did you write your memoir, Black Indian?
I wrote Black Indian because this story is a universal one that hasn’t been told in a memoir before. It’s the real story of America. One that’s been hidden. It’s also the story of my women, and how the drug epidemic of the 80s impacted my family in the worst way, and it’s about our will to survive. My book is Joy Luck Club meets The Color Purple meets The Help and Ceremony. We’re not tragic mulattos. We’re Mixed Blood in America. My next books, The Lost Songs of Nina Simone and Children of the Mixed Blood Trail: The Formation and Migration of Mixed Race Communities, Free People of Color and Black Indian Families, Settlements and Villages from the Southeast to the Midwest will explore more of this narrative in a creative, critical and historical way.
You teach in Alma College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and at Loyola Marymount University. What has teaching writing meant to you?
When conducting writing workshops and in classrooms, I treasure and cherish the feeling of teaching other young and older budding writers how to tell their stories. I love helping them see how valid and valuable their stories are, and that we need all our voices to change and transform society.
How can people find out more about you and your workshops?
I share everything on Instagram, so follow me! Also on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn @shondabuchanan, and I try to post all my workshops on my website, www.shondabuchanan.com. Thanks again, Steven and West Hollywood Gateway!