Poet and activist Cleo Wade on her new book Heart Talk, making things with words, and the power of the people.
BY ERIN WALSH
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Erin Walsh Cleo, congratulations on your first book! It seems to me like an organic extension of your work, which for those who don’t know, ranges from poetry to community building, storytelling, public art and even using your social media presence as a tool to inspire change. Let’s begin by talking about your mission. Do you have one?
Cleo Wade I just want people in the world who feel alone to know that they aren’t alone.
EW Tell me about your road to becoming an artist – how did you get started?
CW I moved to New York after high school and actually worked as an office manager at a fashion company as my first job. It was BRUTAL but it was basically a boot camp for creating a really strong work ethic. I think even as a 17 or 18-year old, I knew then that I wanted to make art, but I am so happy I took a few years to really get to know myself and what is important to me before I started to put my work into the world.
EW Did you envision this life for yourself as a child?
CW I was not brave enough as little black girl in Louisiana to ever dream any part of the life I have now. Everything in my life feels like a miracle.
I firmly believe in the power of magical and miraculous thinking.
EW What do you consider to be your greatest artistic achievement thus far?
CW I really love when I see the different ways people bring my words into their lives. It feels so special when I see them on the tops of graduation caps or on protest signs. That makes me feel so incredibly proud.
EW Your Katrina billboard story is pretty insane – how did that commission come about?
CW During the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I was talking to a friend of mine about how much I wanted to create a public art piece there in dedication to the people of New Orleans. The next day he called me and said he had a billboard at the entry point of the French Quarter I could use. I have a pink typewriter in my home which I type all of my love poems on. I sat down and wrote “Baby, you are the strongest flower that ever grew. Remember that when the weather changes” and then within ten days we turned that small sheet of paper into a file that became a 25-foot anonymous love poem. I was so nervous during the process because I had to actually work with a billboard construction company to install it and the guys were like “What is this!?” We had a lot of really comical emails. That was my first public piece. It meant so much to me.
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EW Tell us about the “Are You Ok” project. Were you surprised by the response?
CW It is a project I did in 2016 inspired by Lucy from The Peanuts. I sat in a park downtown and offered free peaceful and loving conversation. It was the summer before the Presidential election and it felt like the beginning of this time we are living in now – incredibly divisive, aggressive, and exhausting. It was wild because I didn’t expect anyone to show up. I announced it on my instagram that morning and it was a cloudy, kind of rainy day. It was amazing to see so many people show up. The booth had a line the entire day. I was in such awe of how much others were just looking for someone to listen to them and really hear them. It was a beautiful experience for me. Much of what I wrote in Heart Talk is inspired by the people I met in the park that day.
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The mornings are my sacred time. I write every morning. It isn’t always good or for anything specific, but I make sure I do it
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EW What is your creative process? How do you get started on a piece?
CW Once I have an idea, I draft it over and over again until it is as simple and clear as possible. It is important to me to make sure that I am not trying to say three things. I want remedies or words of comfort to feel light and precise so that they feel more applicable.
EW Tell me about some of your favorite role models. Back when I was in theater school, we used to discuss the idea of “stealing” for your toolbox from the people who inspire you. Who inspires you?
CW I just don’t think I would even be a writer if it were not for Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, and James Baldwin. A lot of my poetry is definitely inspired by Hafiz and Rumi, and Alice Walker, especially my early work, as I was still finding my own voice and style.
EW What is your favorite “tool” when you are stuck in the creative department?
CW If the work isn’t flowing I tell myself that it’s okay. I still live my life. It is important to me to not feel imprisoned by my creativity. I don’t want to be a tortured artist. If I am feeling a block, I call up my girlfriends and meet them for Chinese food.
EW Tell me about a day in Cleo Wade’s life – what does it look like?
CW The mornings are my sacred time. I write every morning. It isn’t always good or for anything specific, but I make sure I do it. That is also the time where I catch up on what is happening in the world. I make tea and spend time with myself. I love having a few hours to myself before I join the world – it is a huge part of my self-care routine. The rest of the day varies. I try to go to yoga or Pilates. I work on a lot of different types of projects, which is the fun part of my work, so usually throughout the day I am on calls or meeting with different collaborators. I usually meet my girlfriends for dinner. My favorite nights are probably when my friend Molly Howard go to the movies and sneak a bottle of wine into the theater.
EW Who do you rely on every day to remind yourself of the person that you want to be?
CW I am very lucky to have a tribe of women who hold me accountable. They help me manifest my dreams and support my growth especially when the growing feels painful or uncomfortable.
EW You have done series of talks and panels with women and young girls, in addition to your Ted Talk. Do you enjoy communicating this way? Or is it easier for you to do it through your art?
CW I love being in community with others. I love that in the online space the work can reach so many people so quickly, but nothing beats being in the room with people and being able to look at them when they speak to you.
EW In “Heart Talk”, you argue that “optimism is both a choice and the antidote to despair.” First of all, this is probably why I felt so instantly attracted to you when we met. I imagine many people feel the same. Tell me about optimism. Are there times that a positive outlook has gotten you into trouble? Times it was foolish?
CW I think to look at life without optimism is to believe that magic does not exist and I firmly believe in magic. I firmly believe in the power of magical and miraculous thinking. To live without hope means that you are willing to accept things the way they are and I personally think that there is always a will and a way to make something better. Make yourself better. Make your community better. Make the world better.
As a black woman in America, my existence is political.
EW Often people confuse optimism with naivete, which tends to really infuriate me. What do you say to these people?
CW I just smile at them.
EW When someone asks you, “what do you do” (say, at a dinner party), what do you say?
CW I make things with words.
EW Tell me about your own “girls dinners” where you write group poetry – I think it would be pretty inspirational to our readers…
CW My girlfriends and I usually bring a note book to dinner and write a collective poem together. We each write a line and pass the notebook around the table through the night. They are some of my favorite poems.
EW What is YOUR role as an artist today? And how political do you like to get?
CW As a black woman in America, my existence is political. I think Nina Simone said it best when she said that “An artist’s job is to reflect the times.” I try to speak to the times and encourage the people in my community to participate in ending the generational oppression of so many people in this country.
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EW In these particularly charged times, people have gotten very black and white about drawing lines of right and wrong. Do you have any opinion on the “grey zone”? I would like to think that somewhere between the extremes, is the compassionate zone. Where do you like to reside, most of the time?
CW I think the grey areas can be important because that is where you have the most conversation. If I stay on my side of the line and you stay on your side of the line then there can be no evolution, empathy, or compassionate understanding for either of us. That does not mean you change your value system. It just means that you allow there to be enough space so that you can really hear the other person and understand where they are coming from, why they think the way they think, and why they feel the way they feel.
EW What do you consider to be your artistic responsibility?
CW To make honest work.
EW James Baldwin writes, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hatred so stubbornly, is because they fear, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.” You have a capacity for grace and compassion as an artist that is not only moving to people – it’s a movement. But are there subjects that infuriate you, that you find hard not to let go of the anger, of the hate? And what do you in these cases?
CW Oh, I get angry all of the time. Our Mass Incarceration epidemic angers me. Our lack of common sense gun control laws angers me. The fact the 40% of our homeless youth are LGBTQ+ kids, that really angers me. It is healthy to get angry especially at the outrageous. I think the question we have to ask ourselves is what are you going to do about it?
EW Finally, not everyone is an artist, or can be, like you. What do you think is the most effective and efficient tool for change, for making the world more beautiful, to those who are not creatively inclined?
CW Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are, and in your own way. There is no one way to show up. There is no one way to change the world.
EW What do you hope to be your legacy?
CW I feel that thinking too much about legacy can put us into a really egoic place. I just try to do my best every day and help as many people as I can. I’m happy living in that space.
EW We are asking the individuals we find to be extraordinary, #whatsyoursbjct? What is your subject, Cleo Wade? What moves you? in a handful of words…
CW The power of the people.