Poet Carlynn Newhouse reflects on creative process and opening for Questlove

Poet Carlynn Newhouse. (Photo by Libby Lewis)

Before noted drummer and Roots frontman Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson spoke on creativity at Seattle Arts and Lectures last month, local poet Carlynn Newhouse set the stage with her vision for a heaven for black women.

“Black joy is rarely talked about and I wanted to center that aspect of our culture,” Newhouse later told me. “Plus, the event was on creativity and I think there is something radically creative in writing about a reality we want to see, one full of black girl magic and joy, versus just the one we currently exist in.”

Newhouse, 18, is a three-time Seattle Youth Speaks Grand Slam Champion, was invited to open for author and bandleader Questlove, who was in town to talk about his book “Creative Quest.” The evening at Seattle Arts and Lectures was introduced by Leilani Lewis, a recent recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award and a Seattle Arts and Lectures board member.

D’Vonne Lewis, drummer of local experimental jazz band Industrial Revelation moderated the casual Q&A with Questlove. Questlove, most known for being the drummer and frontman for The Roots, spoke of his childhood as a stagehand for his parents who were traveling musicians. He also recounted how he and Tarik Trotter (AKA Black Thought) met in the principal’s office of a performing arts school and started the group, which throughout the 1990s and through today has been an influential hip hop group, garnering awards and critical acclaim.

In 2009 The Roots became the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and are now currently the house band for the Tonight Show. In addition to leading The Roots, Questlove is a DJ and has been a guest star in several movies and TV shows.

His new book is an exploration into his creative process. He’s also published two other books, A memoir called “Mo’Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove” and “Something to Food About.”

The Seattle Globalist spoke with Carlynn Newhouse about her experience opening for Questlove, her creative process, and her own thoughts on the Questlove Q&A. Here’s a lightly edited version of what she had to say:

Tell us about the piece you performed at the event

The piece I performed is called “Alternate Heaven for Black Girls: After Danez Smith.” One of my favorite poets, Danez Smith, wrote a poem called “Alternate Heaven for Black Boys”. In this imaginary heaven all the black boys who died or were murdered on earth are alive, and safe, and joyful. I was so inspired that I wanted to make my own heaven for black women.

Why did you select that poem?

Actually, I was asked to send in three poem options and the SAL team chose this piece. I included it in the options because it fit the time frame and it makes me really happy when I perform it. It’s one of the few happy poems I have and I thought it would be dope to perform something a little bit on the lighter side. Black joy is rarely talked about and I wanted to center that aspect of our culture. Plus, the event was on creativity and I think there is something radically creative in writing about a reality we want to see, one full of black girl magic and joy, versus just the one we currently exist in.

What was it like to be invited to open for Questlove?

I was tripping. Honestly I was so shocked and overwhelmed. I called my mom and my sister 30 seconds after getting the email and my dad shortly after, they were so excited for me. It was the highlight of my entire day. It was also extremely humbling that people enjoy my work that much and thought it was worthy of sharing that space. I love poetry so I work really hard on my craft, but I never thought in a million years I would be invited to open for Questlove. Nevertheless getting a low five from him backstage after I performed. After I calmed down (because the anxiety was real) I had a blast. The experience was amazing and I am eternally grateful. God is good.

Are you a fan of hip hop in general? The Roots and Questlove specifically?

I love hip hop! Really music in general, I grew up going to my sister’s jazz concerts and my dad bumping old school rap around the house. And Questlove? Such an iconic drummer and activist. He really inspires me, especially how he is unapologetically pro-black and uses his platform to educate folks.

What is your creative process?

I’m working on trying to write more out of practice and less out of inspiration, but honestly it’s hard. Some days I succeed, more days I fail. Each day is learning how to give myself grace as a person and a creative. Although, Instagram has actually helped me with this some. On Instagram stories there’s a type feature so I’ll write short poems in the morning and post them. I’m usually a long winded writer so this has allowed me to practice consolidating my thinking, and writing something, anything, on a more consistent basis.

I write a lot about race, gender, and body image, but this year has been writing a lot about healing and self love. I notice I write better poetry in my journal than on a computer so part of my process is starting there and then transferring it. And I usually write my best between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. I get inspired by song lyrics, conversations, social media, and really just the world. The only rule I really have for myself when I free write is to be authentic with myself. If something feels forced, I won’t write it. But when I’ve identified what the real feeling is, what I’m really trying to say, I write until there isn’t anything left to put on the page. Until I feel lighter. It doesn’t always help, but most days it does.

What was your takeaway from Questlove’s talk?

One take away I got was to take a break from the thing you love sometimes, and to try new things. Questlove is a drummer, but he’s also a cook, an author, an educator, a comedian, a DJ, (and I’m sure more that I’m forgetting). Trying other art forms and crafts influenced how he thought about each skill. Also, not to only have “yes men” in your circle. His team is even more critical than him and it’s super important to have people who are going to critique and judge and aren’t there just to make you happy. Finally I learned a lot about patience. He talked about long studio sessions, fine tuning, and striving for perfection. It takes a long time to create high quality, meaningful art, but if you are dedicated the process and hours of labor are worth it.

Will your creative process change as a result? If so how?

Most def. For one, I’m going to be more critical of my own art work as well as spending more time editing. I don’t edit my poetry enough and he re-instilled the importance of that part of the process. Also I’m going to try new things! As a perfectionist I like sticking to what I know well, but I would like to see what happens with my poetry when I try new things. I’ve been fascinated by beat making and I recently figured out I like collages. I don’t think I’ll become a famous visual artist but I do think stepping out of my comfort zone will inform my writing!

What’s next for you?

Wow, so many things. I’m releasing a chapbook, “Flames in the Wind” in June, so keep an eye out for that! It’s my first collection of poetry and it’s celebrating healing, self love, and resilience, so I’m really excited about it. I have some poetry videos to release, and a bunch of local performances coming up. I’ll be going to Houston for Brave New Voices (the international youth poetry festival) for the 4th time in July. And in August I’ll be moving to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University as a Psychology major! This is a year of blessings in my art life.

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