Interview By Nitra Wisdom
Shanell BKLYN (née Betts) is a New York-based queer poet, photographer and author of “Humanity Maintained.” Through this powerful collection of poems, Shanell exposes her vulnerability as she discusses her experiences of homelessness, abuse, depression and the healing powers of love, women and friendship. Akin to rapper Angel Haze, her candid delivery forces the reader to confront uncomfortable issues that lead to dialogue and ultimately healing, finding comfort in her words. Her truths are visceral; her story is one of survival, and in the following interview, Shanell discusses the inspiration behind her work, how her artistry saved her life, and her love for the queer community.
ELIXHER: Please tell our readers a little about yourself.
SHANELL: I am a 26-year-old woman of color, born and raised in New Jersey but my heart and soul lives in Brooklyn. I am a fashion photographer, writer, and graphic artist. Everything I do, I do with love and passion. I do it for my community, my family, and my friends. I come from a background with strong convictions and morals; many generations of bold and strong women. So that translates into the art I create.
ELIXHER: When did you discover your talent as a poet?
SHANELL: I’ve always been a writer. Even as a little girl, I would get excited when we could create our own stories in class. My imagination was always vivid. Art and English [were] all I lived for. And I always wanted to merge the two. When I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer but didn’t see myself achieving that goal because I am dyslexic. But the moment I performed at Snatch Entertainment’s open mic show November 2008, it changed my entire life. I was performing alongside and among some of the dopest, rawest poets in the tri-state area. They all praised me and were so impressed by my writing. They made me feel like I could be the next Nikki Giovanni or something. And it’s crazy because I look back at those pieces think, Why did I write that? That is so lame [Laughs]. I felt there was a difference between being a writer, a poet, and a spoken word artist. To me, they all have a different finesse in the way they deliver their art. I have all three of those entities inside me and you can definitely see the difference in the flow and energy.
People are going to judge me regardless, I rather it be based on my own truths.
ELIXHER: You perform your poetry in front of an audience. Is it a different feeling to have your words in the hands of others, whose reactions you can’t see?
SHANELL: Yoooo. This question is wild because I never thought of that. That never crossed my mind. You just blew my mind! Man, that is pretty uncomfortable when I think about it but at this point I have to be ok with it…[Laughs] it’s been printed. I’m joking. But really thinking about it I really don’t care right at this moment. I have never been this translucent and it is liberating. I am so used to being in control because that is all I’ve ever known. My father controlled his lovers and children. My grandmother controlled everything around her. My aunt and uncle fought for control over one another. That aggression was instilled into me as a child. So all I knew how to be was in control and to control others; defense mechanism, of course. So Shanell two years ago would have been concerned with not being able to see other’s reactions to my pieces. Not being able to say, “Wait let me recite it to you, it sounds better live.” [Laughs.] At this point, it is what it is. People are going to judge me regardless, I rather it be based on my own truths.
ELIXHER: Are there any pieces in “Humanity Maintained” that you have never performed?
SHANELL: Yeah, there are a lot of new pieces that have never been performed because I stopped performing in 2012. And there are a handful of old pieces that have never been performed. There is only one poem that I have performed once and only once despite requests and that is “Mister.”
ELIXHER: Your writing is very visual and raw and sugarcoats nothing. Is that an accurate representation of who you are when the pen is away?
SHANELL: Yes and no. I am definitely as raw and honest away from the pen. Anyone that knows me knows that Shanell is not the one to hold her tongue [Laughs]. I can be very slick with my tongue but now that I am an adult because I have grown and elevated, there are so many things that I refuse to let leave my mouth anymore just because of me being more aware of myself. For me to move in awareness and do all things through love, you can never lose. I like to say if I have nothing nice to say then I won’t say anything at all. But do believe I have no problem serving a quick read when needed.
ELIXHER: What went into the process of choosing the title, “Humanity Maintained”?
SHANELL: I am bad with naming things. Coming up with slogans or catch phrases or anything like that…yeah I suck at it! So I have been collecting these poems since 2009 but decided in 2011 that I was seriously going to write a book and ever since then I have been trying to find a name for this book. But I wasn’t ready for it yet. The Universe said, “No.” And it’s crazy because last summer after being laid off from work, I went into a really bad depression. The worst I’ve ever had. I had stop cutting years ago, as a promise to my best friend, but suicidal thoughts were more than I wanted them to be. Everything happens for a reason – I am a firm believer in that.
My little cousin, who is like a little brother to me, his phone call saved my life. He resurrected me. He is 20 years old. A popular basketball player for Rutgers University and he said to me that I was his hero. That he looked up to me ever since we were little kids. He said that I inspired him and he wanted to be like me when he grew up. I was like, Me? This socially awkward afropunk queer? This nerd? After breaking down crying and revealing to him what I was going to do, he told me that I didn’t realize how much I meant to him and that if he lost me he didn’t know what he would do with his life. In that moment I realized how my death could affect the few people close to me in my life. What kind of ripple effect would I cause?
And I thought how selfish it would be of me to cause that much pain on these people. I thought, Shanell, you have slept in the rain on a front porch couch. Like, you are fine! This is nothing! And I sat there and I meditated and I prayed and I opened myself back up to the universe because sometimes we forget who we are and how powerful we are. And with that this elevation embodied me. I have been through so much that some people wouldn’t even believe. And through it all I still held on to my humanity. I could be a very spiteful and evil person. I could want to take my pain out on the world. I could refuse to find the beauty in everything and clench onto that pain. I can keep it bottled up and hinder my growth, stop myself from reaching my god head. But I made the choice to let go and let god. In this my humanity was maintained. It gave me balance. It set me back on the path in which I was destined to be.
Women are just magical. They are divine. The love that I shared with these women, the beds I have soaked, the hearts I have broken, the people who have broken mine and all the love notes scattered in between is what inspired me to even begin to write.
ELIXHER: With the recent suicide of lifestyle blogger Karyn Washington, more of us are speaking out about mental health in the Black community. Can you talk about your journey with depression, how it has impacted your writing, and vice versa?
SHANELL: Yeah, it is really unfortunate. If we had more open dialogue within the community, people wouldn’t be walking in fear to share something that could possibly change their destiny. I didn’t realize I had depression until last spring. So my entire life I thought I was moody, or sometimes crazy or just temperamental. Because mental health is not discussed in our communities (mind you, my grandmother who raised my sister and I had a PhD in Psychology), I didn’t know there were names for the things I was experiencing. Social anxiety, seasonal depression, self-mutilation, manic depression, bi-polar disorder; all of these things are very different. And most times when we refer to someone who is “crazy,” we call them bi-polar. We use the diagnosed terms for these mental illnesses as jokes. So now you have people who are trying to completely separate themselves from anything to do with it. People who have been diagnosed and refuse to accept this information and refuse help because we have made it taboo.
All of the sexual, physical, and mental abuse I endured is something I have never gotten help for. You could have asked me a couple months ago if I was over it and I would lie and say yes. I live with social anxiety, depression and I have ADD. But today, I refuse to continue to carry these burdens but I have yet to muster the courage to do so. And I am talking about conventional and unconventional treatment. I get to a certain point and I just stop pushing myself. I never reach my breakthrough. So my depression comes and goes. I am actually at this moment coming out of a year-long depression. I was dead. I was void and lifeless. I was crying every other night. I was having anxiety attacks. I felt like my world was crashing and collapsing. I felt like this was the end for me. I felt confined and trapped. I didn’t think I was going to make it through. The upside of it all is that it makes for powerful pieces. [Laughs.] I have written some serious stuff while depressed. But usually the first half of my depression I have writer’s block. I can’t muster a creative bone in my body. And then the other half I just go into super creative mode and I am writing a poem a day.
ELIXHER: “Humanity Maintained” is at times difficult to read. From molestation at the age of four, to the lynching of Black bodies that are still taking place in 2014, the topics you discuss are too often avoided in our community. At any point did you hesitate to include any of the pieces?
SHANELL: Since I was young I have always been taught to edit, to revise, to proofread, to re-read and this was pertaining to writing or art. So it is natural for me to want curate the pieces that would be in this book even though I had the impulse to just print them all. But I realize there are certain things that happened in my life that I am not completely comfortable sharing with the world yet. Most of my work was organized into this book but there were two very important poems that I did not include. One of them is actually the first poem I ever wrote about my mother and it starts off telling how I was a still birth. It starts off “I was born blue my mother said…”
ELIXHER: Your connections with women, from “Mommy Dearest” and “Mommy, I Love You” to “Brueklen Gypsy,” are sensual, painful, layered. How has loving women shaped your life and your art?
SHANELL: Women are very important to me. Being a woman is important to me. The queer community is important to me. Being queer is very important to me. It has been what has defined me my entire life next to being Black. I feel that women are just magical. They are divine. Like I could write a poem right now. I am a queer woman of color and that already gives you a list of assumptions about me with this title. But it has helped me channel this poetic energy I have inside of me. The love that I shared with these women, the beds I have soaked, the hearts I have broken, the people who have broken mine and all the love notes scattered in between is what inspired me to even begin to write. That constant longing for a Disney fairytale love; waiting to be swept off my feet. Even when shooting, I channel that energy. I only photograph women (I recently had my first two photo shoots with men ever). But I can say that that was just looking for that love that I never got from my parents — more importantly my mother. I felt like, Yo, you carried me for nine months in your stomach. You went through hours of labor to have push me out but can so easily give me up and not give a damn what happens to me? That concept is crazy to me. But I gave up on trying to find love from my parents and searched for that feeling that I would get from people in love on TV. And every single experience left me broke but not broken.
ELIXHER: “More Than His Rib” is my favorite piece – it’s a women warriors’ call. What’s your perspective on the sense of community among queer women of color?
SHANELL: I love this piece so much; it is one of my favorites. I actually wrote it thinking about the women in my family and how each generation of has had to carry this warrior spirit; or ancestors guiding us. I wanted to pay homage to their natural born and divine strength that we women carry. A strength that men will never be able to fully grasp. So it is very important for queer women of color to be united because people are starting to become conscious to the fact that when they said “feminist,” they weren’t including us. We are no longer begging for a seat at their table but taking the initiative to create our own table and our own seats, creating and providing services for us by us. We live in a society where the powers that be don’t care about us unless they can make money off us, but the way they want to — under their restrictions and rules. No rich straight white male from the suburbs should be writing a book about a young queer Spanish woman from a [developing nation]. It makes absolutely no sense! It is absurd! We need to ban together to bring our community together and the things they need because they are obviously not ever going to give it to us, so what I’m going to do is take it! I’m actually in the process of starting a production company to service QPOC and POC only. Now, I know the backlash that will come with that and some may feel I will limit myself to investors and sponsors and I am okay with that because I am focusing my energy on the solution not the problem.
ELIXHER: What’s next for you?
SHANELL: Well, right now I am in the process of re-launching my photography business and working on my production company and building a strong team. There is a clothing line and also a second book featuring my poetry and photography that is manifesting. And just taking care of my health. I really aspire to be happy and to make others around me happy. That’s success to me – making a difference and helping others.
For more information about “Humanity Maintained,” click here.
Nitra Wisdom is a freelance copy editor and proofreader who is working on her first collection of short stories and personal essays. The self-described queer introverted bibliophile received her B.A. in Pan African Studies from the University of Louisville and currently lives in Atlanta, GA where she blogs about love, literature, being a wounded healer and the Divinity of Femininity at wiseedits.wordpress.com.