In May, Pat Frazier became the National Youth Poet Laureate—the first ever from Chicago—after being named the city’s Youth Poet Laureate last September. Inspired by poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Safia Elhillo and their own activism work with Assata’s Daughters—an intergenerational collective based in Washington Park that organizes actions around the city—Frazier’s first book of poetry, Graphite, will be out this September via Haymarket Books. In a conversation with the Weekly, Frazier talks about the intersection of their literary and organizing work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In a recent interview with Chicago Magazine you mentioned you can’t go back to where you grew up—the Ida B. Wells Homes—because they’re no longer there. Can you elaborate on the impact of feeling like you can’t go back to somewhere and what that means going forward?
I think in a lot of ways I’ve spent the year since my grandmother passed away trying to revisit the Ida B. Wells Homes. A lot of those memories have to be told to me or have to be given to me through some secondary source. And a lot of my memories seem unreal a lot of the time. So that was a struggle with writing a book that was sort of an ode to this place I grew up [in]. I felt like it was my responsibility to tell these stories correctly, but my memory wasn’t always there. A lot of the poems are sort of a reimagination of the essence of how it felt to grow up. And that’s kind of painful.
What should people know about the work Assata’s Daughters is doing around the city and in the #NoCopAcademy campaign?
I’ve been with Assata’s [Daughters] for—I think—going on three years now. When I first joined I was very fresh-faced. It was wet-behind-the-ears activism. A lot of talking on Twitter. I do that still, but I think it was just me expecting to automatically go into a revolution and not knowing exactly what that looked like. It’s really, really cool to see people who have conflict with police and who have stuff going on at home who dropped out of high school to organize and be in actions and understand that just because they don’t talk pretty or just because they don’t have a high school diploma, that none of that means they can’t still be active and they can’t still be doing good things for the community. So I think Assata’s has opened that space for everyone to be a part of the movement. And not just people who are going through these modes of what I would say [are] white academia, right? Because I’ve sat on a lot of panels where I was the only Black young person and I’m in college and I’m the National Youth Poet Laureate, and a lot of those things are privileges that if I had not had them and if I was just like, oh, I’m from the projects, I have a story to tell, I wouldn’t have been allowed in those spaces. So I’m really thankful to Assata’s for giving those youth that space.
Listen to the full version of this interview that aired on #SSWRadio, the Weekly’s radio hour and podcast:
You’ve got this huge platform as National Youth Poet Laureate. Do you feel an obligation to advocate for the city in the way that you’re doing? Because some people can just write and it can be about whatever, but not advocate as well. And you’re doing both of those things. Do you feel like it’s an obligation and how do you manage that in what you do?
If I’m talking from an organizer’s perspective, obviously yes, it seems like an obligation for me. But if I wasn’t an organizer, if I was just National Youth Poet Laureate and I just wrote poems I still think that me having this platform—considering all the places I’ve been and all the places I come from—is already doing a lot for the city. I think that one of the poems that people love the most from me is “I Am Windy City,” which is just, like, don’t call us Chiraq. Don’t perpetuate these violent narratives that Fox News and all these other platforms perpetuate on a daily basis. That’s super important, but it’s also super important that I just do a poem about my mom that says, hey, we like the situation we’re in and you don’t have to judge her because she had me when she was a teen or you don’t have to judge her because of what happened with her reproductive system.
What are some of the teachers or mentors you’ve had outside of the traditional school setting that have really influenced you along the way?
Mama Brenda. She passed away, but her name was Brenda Matthews and I met her in an After School Matters program for poetry. I think that she was so important because she was another person who was always pushing us to break our boundaries, to hop out of our shells. The program was on the West Side and I was an introvert. I was so shy, so I never spoke to anybody. But in this one day she did a workshop, and by the end of the day everybody in the room was all crying together, sobbing together and just talking and listening to each other. And from that day forward it didn’t matter that I was from the South Side and all these other girls were from the West Side. It didn’t matter that I was an introvert and that I talked white. All that mattered was that we understood each other and that we were just together in that space. And I think that’s what good teaching is.
And then Page May, who isn’t like a poetry teacher necessarily, but she’s one of the co-founders of Assata’s. She talks a lot, just like me, but she understands when to be quiet and when to step back and I think that’s really important. She also takes criticism extremely well. I don’t think I’ve ever met a teacher who I’ve had the audacity to give criticism too, but Page encourages it. If I was to say I want to be any type of teacher, I think that I would definitely want to follow up in Page’s steps; that’s the type of teaching that I would want to give to people.
What do you envision for yourself down the road? If you, as the more seasoned version of yourself, some years from now look back and you’re like, okay, I was a success if I did this or if I experienced this or if I made this happen, what would those things be for you?
I think about this a lot. I don’t know. I think ultimately I just want to be happy and I want the people around me to be happy. More concretely, I want to start a production company of all people of color. And there’s already kind of one here in Chicago, it’s called VAM [Studio] and I love them. I’ve done some work with them, but I want to start a production company like VAM, all people of color, queer folk where young people are just able to commune and tell their own stories.
Poetry is very accessible. Like in most cases all you need is a pen and piece of paper or your phone or like just something to write on. Film, not so accessible. Film, you need a camera, you need equipment, and not just hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars. So just creating that space for young people who want to see images that inspire them to imagine different worlds. I want my company to hopefully put HBO out of business.
The release party for Graphite will be held at Young Chicago Authors, 1180 N. Milwaukee Ave., on September 1st at 7pm.
Note 11/4/20: This story has been updated to reflect Pat Frazier’s current pronouns.
Dave Stieber is a National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher in his eleventh year of teaching for CPS. He last wrote an op-ed for the Weekly about why CPS teachers should send their children to public school.