For the January issue of the Arts Council’s monthly newsletter, Front Row Center, we interviewed an amazingly talented and revered local performance poet, Vernell Bristow. A native of Covington, Kentucky (right across the Ohio River from Cincinnati), she began writing poetry while a student at Denison University. She moved to Columbus in 1994 to attend graduate school at The Ohio State University. Bristow is the co-founder of Writer’s Block Poetry and for several years has participated in regional, national and international slam poetry competitions, as well as the annual Columbus Arts Festival poetry competition. If you haven’t seen her perform – you must. Her work ranges from poignant to hilarious, reflecting her keen, sensitive observations of everyday life.
By Jennifer Sadler
GCAC: When did you become interested in poetry?
VB: I first became interested in poetry while I was in high school. I had a wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Ruth Johnson, who introduced me to Nikki Giovanni’s poetry. Until that point, I couldn’t appreciate poetry because I didn’t see myself reflected in the poems I was reading for school. I’m eternally grateful for Mrs. Johnson taking the extra step and showing me the diversity of poets. That’s how I came to love reading poetry. Somehow, Mrs. Johnson slipped in sonnets by Shakespeare. I was hooked on those, too.
GCAC: Who were your early influences?
VB: As a reader, I loved Nikki Giovanni’s work. I also enjoyed the poetry created during the Harlem Renaissance. Who doesn’t love Langston Hughes? I began writing poetry while in college at Denison University. My earliest influence was Gwendolyn Brooks. She was phenomenal and her poetry still connects to my spirit. I am blessed to have met her twice. I had a chance to meet her at Denison when she came to campus to give a reading. The second time, while I was a graduate student at The Ohio State University, we met at a writer’s conference at Chicago State University. That was also the first time I met Nikki Giovanni.
GCAC: When did you realize you had a gift for not only writing, but performing poetry? Were you interested in the spoken word/performing your work from the beginning? Or was it an evolution?
VB: Performing poetry has definitely been an evolution. I have always thought that poetry is meant to be heard. Even before I wrote my first poem in 1992, I was compelled to read poems aloud while reading them. I didn’t begin to focus on the performance of my poems until 2006. I really wanted to earn a spot on the Writers Block Poetry slam team and represent Columbus at the National Poetry Slam. My involvement in slams made me more conscious of how I can impact the way audience members experience my poetry through the performance.
GCAC: Name one of your favorite poets and why you love their work.
VB: Wow, how can I pick a favorite poet? There are so many talented contemporary poets it’s hard to name just one. At least once a month I hear one of the best poems I’ve ever experienced right hear in Columbus at Writers Block Poetry’s open mic. If I can to pick one of my favorite poets of all time it would have to be Frances E. W. Harper. Harper was a black woman who wrote poetry during slavery. Although Harper was free, she felt compelled to address the inhumanity of slavery in her poetry. That was bold for a woman during that time. Her poetry reveals realities about slavery that won’t be found in history books. She also wrote about other subjects that reflect what was important to her. I love her poetry.
GCAC: What’s it like being a slam poet in Columbus? What’s the community like?
VB: I’ve never called myself a slam poet. I’m just a poet who likes to participate in poetry slams sometimes. Columbus has a very rich and diverse poetry community. There are a lot of open mics… almost one every week night. There are new poets that come to readings on a regular basis.There are also some fantastic, nationally known, poets in Columbus as well. It’s beautiful when poets with varying levels of experience are in the same room. Its also wonderful when poets get together to talk about their work or give each other support. Its a blessing to be a part of the Columbus poetry community. Every now and then something magical happens. For example, last summer my mother came to visit for a week. She was so excited to go to Writers Block. She was so inspired by the poems she’s heard over the years that she decided to write a poem and share it at open mic for the first time. My mom is 71 years old. Seeing her behind the mic and watching the audience encourage her was amazing.
GCAC: We’ve seen you perform many times at the Columbus Arts Festival’s Word is Art stage – and your work is powerful! You write about so many different subjects. Are you constantly thinking about poetry?
VB: I think about poetry quite a bit. I think about it more than I write it. Most of my poems begin with a lot of thought before I ever start a draft.
GCAC: What is your process like?
VB: I don’t have a structured process. There are moments when an idea hits me and I must write a complete draft immediately. There have also been poems that have taken me months or years to write. When I’m working on a project, I try to have a more structure schedule of writing.
GCAC: Tell us about the women’s poetry group you’re involved in – Secrets of Oshun.
VB: I’m a founding member of the Secrets of Oshun. The group was created with two women poets in Columbus: Tiffani Smith and Izetta Thomas. We named the group after Oshun, a Yoruba goddess. Also with sharing our own poems individually and as a group, we also highlight other female poets as guests during every show that we do.
GCAC: Where can folks go to hear and see you perform?
VB: I am the co-founder of Writers’ Block Poetry. Our open mic is every Wednesday at 8 pm at Kafe Kerouac. I usually perform every week.