I first came across Blythe Baird performing her poem, 'Pocket-Sized Feminism' for Button Poetry Live. She was astounding and eloquent and brave. Two months later, on a clear spring day (on her end, not mine), Blythe and I met for the first time over Skype. Sitting in a field in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Blythe managed to be one hundred times more charming and more articulate than anyone ever ought to be. In the following interview, she shares her thoughts on slam poetry, glitter, gender equality and God - at least, one that she can relate to.
Alright, well, we’ll get started because I know you’ve got people to see and things to do.
Thank you very much for interviewing me, I really appreciate it.
No, that’s okay – thank you so much for agreeing to it! How did you get into spoken word? Is that something that you can explain in under a minute?
Yeah, for sure! I never really thought about spoken word until my sophomore year of high school, I saw Sierra DeMulder (check out her work here) who was performing at my school. It was literally my first day back at school after I was out school for about 3 months receiving intensive rehabilitation treatment. At the time, I had never seen spoken word before. She had this one poem about anorexia and there was this line – “Your body is not a temple, your body is the house you grew up in. How dare you try to burn it to the ground?” and it rocked my shit up. When I heard that poem, it made me genuinely want to get better. I was so astounded that a poem could do something so profound and impactful. I started watching her poems on Youtube and then I saw that she was going to be a counselor at Slam Camp. I had never written anything outside school before. At camp, I learned poetry through the context of the competitive format of slam. I started getting more involved in the Chicago slam scene, which is where I’m from. Slam Camp was really what got the ball rolling. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I went my junior and senior year of high school, last year I came back to perform, and now this year I’m going to be a junior counselor. (Incoming high school freshman through outgoing seniors can register to go to camp this upcoming summer here.)
Can you talk to me about your new book of poetry, Give Me A God I Can Relate To?
I actually have that book on me right now and fun fact, the way that I titled that book is thanks to this homie right here (referring to her friend, One, who hung out with us throughout this interview). I told him I wanted to title it with a line from my most popular poem, which was Girl Code 101 at the time. I read him the poem, and he was like “You know what stood out to me? Give Me a God I Can Relate To. So many people are gonna feel that.” So that’s how that went down. But the book, what do you want to know about it?
I’m just interested in how you arranged those poems? Did you write any new ones for it because you were thinking these ideas needed to be said in this particular context and you haven’t said it yet?
My publisher, Clementine von Radics, approached me wanting to put my book out before I had written it. I met her and her boyfriend Alex Dang in 2014 in California when I was the youngest competitor at the National Poetry Slam. I had literally just turned eighteen the first day of the competition. Clementine approached me and was like “hey I really want to put out a book by you”. I was like, I don’t really have a book?! I just have poems. And then she asked if I could write one for Where Are You Press, her publishing company. And I was like, sure! And then a year later, I got my shit together. A year later! I had a lot of the poems before but most of them I wrote either during 30/30, which is the national poetry month, or they were poems I was already working on for slam. The way that I wrote new ones was by arranging them by topics. I would have my feminism poems, sexuality poems, mental illness poems, different themes surrounding them. I feel like the book is scattered, but that’s how I wanted it because that’s how I feel like my thought process is as a young person. I feel like life isn’t like these neat, divided sections of experiences. I’m really excited because I’m also working on another book. I want to have another book out before I’m twenty. But I have a lot better idea of how to structure things now and I know what I want to say more clearly.
Is that your big focus at this point in time or are you working on any other projects right now?
No, that’s my focus right now! Slam Camp and being a junior councilor is going to be a big thing. Plus, me and One are going to write a group piece. I just got back from Austin, Texas for CUPSI (College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational) where my Hamline University team got thirteenth out of seventy-something teams.
Congrats! That’s fantastic!
Thanks, it was really dope! I also run the poetry slam at my university and I just got a new job at the Creative Writing department at my school, as well as being a full time student. Other than that with poetry stuff, I’m really excited because I just made the national team again so this is going to be the third national team I’ve been on and collectively the youngest team that Nationals has ever seen. It’ll be me, Donte Collins (http://www.dontecollins.com/) who I think is one of the most brilliant artists ever regardless of age. It’ll also be with Sarah Ogutu, who’s twenty-two and brilliant, and Erica Hoops who I think nineteen/almost twenty. I also do Button Poetry live, the Button Poetry slam at St. Paul. I was originally close-captioning their videos to make them more accessible to the deaf community because I study American Sign Language too. The other big project I’m most excited for is an initiative but I’m trying to integrate some programs to- wait, have you seen the Hunting Ground documentary?
Based on that, there are a lot of similar things going on at my school and I’m collaborating with people here to make some more initiatives on our campus to hold predators accountable for assault.
That’s incredible. Please keep us updated your progress! It’s clear that your work encompasses a lot of different things other than poetry. How do you feel your work has developed over the years?
I did start when I was very young but at the same time it wasn’t that long ago. When I first started, I wanted to change the world. I heard and saw all these poems that were immensely affecting me and I want to be able to do the same thing. But I would start too big. I wouldn’t want to write about myself because I would feel like that was too small a concept. Over the past couple of years, what I’ve been realising is that specificity and writing from my personal experiences is the best way to articulate a universal concept or a universal truth. Because if I’m very specific about what I’m dealing with, then it is able to reach people more than it would if I made these broad statements like “rape culture is bad”. That’s different than “I was catcalled four times on the way here”. Writing wise, I’m a lot more specific now. I’m less afraid.
Feminism has an odd way of integrating itself into your life, is it something that you were taught or something you fell into?
I don’t know where exactly I got my first idea of feminism, but I remember growing up and feminism having negative connotations with it. Nobody at my school openly identified as a feminist. It seemed selfish, like you were a radical. I remember when I went to slam camp and Sierra (DeMulder) said something about being a feminist a couple of times. I was so empowered by it, and by seeing her be who she is and be so comfortable with it. Feminism was such a revelation for me because it was the first time I was able to realise that, wow, I wasn’t catcalled when I was nine because I was a particular seductive nine year old. That behaviour is part of a greater system that is in place and that affected my poetry immensely too. I was back at school after slam camp in senior year, and just so much shit went down. It made me raise a ruckus about a lot of shit and I got in a lot of social trouble. I had a class called ‘Living On Your Own’ and we had to make ‘Wanted’ signs for our future husbands. We watched the movie, He’s Just Not That Into You. At the end of the semester, we were supposed to have this mock wedding and this was the only year that our class didn’t have any boys in it. So my teacher was like, “obviously we can’t have a wedding with no boys”. It was two weeks after gay marriage was legalised in Illinois but my teacher said this it would be offensive to actual gay people. I wasn’t out or anything at that point, but I still stood up to it because I had the armour of feminism to know I was right. I remember the stark contrast of feeling like I was the only one who was awake and everybody else was sleeping. Even my best friends didn’t know what to do. They were afraid of being perceived as a feminist because that was like being perceived as a drama queen.
What you’re saying about having a classroom mentality that is so infectious in a negative way resonates so strongly with me because you feel like there’s nothing you can do.
Absolutely! It’s great that the basis of the beliefs of people in poetry slam tend to be pretty liberal, especially with the videos that Button Poetry puts up. That’s part of why I love the culture of slam and the poetry community. I remember when I was coming up in the Young Chicago Authors scene, before every slam the host would say, “This is a brave space, which means we do not tolerate any racist, gender-biased, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise hateful bullshit.”
The fact that you are also a role model for a lot of people – does that scare you? Does that inspire you?
I’m super thankful to have this platform, but I was never trying to be a role model, it just sort of happened. I’m glad that people can find empowerment in that. At the same time, I feel a lot of pressure because I feel that I have this outspoken activist “poetry persona” and then I have my regular self that takes a lot of naps and writes with glitter gel pens. I’m a super typical college student.
I don’t think super typical college students say things like “I’m a super typical college student”.
Well, I’m careful of it now because I’m more conscious of it. I think about how much I look up to Sierra and my other mentors, and how much seeing what they do affects what I feel is okay to do. The dichotomy comes from being a young person that is influential, because I’m also making mistakes at the same time. If I’m silent at a party when there’s evident sexism happening in front of me, it’s not just me not saying anything but it’s the ‘pocket-sized feminism’ girl keeping her feminism in her pocket. I like being held accountable, though. I wouldn’t trade it. It makes me want to be better.
In terms of your work with Sierra and your other mentors, what was the most recent piece of poetry you remember that surprised you?
This one is an older one but I reread it a lot and it rocks me up every time. It’s by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz who is one of my favourite poets. She has one of my favourite poems called For People Who Keep Asking Me Why I’m Still in Slam. This isn’t from that particular poem but there’s a quote she has that goes “How you do anything, is how you do everything.” That fucked me up because especially if I’m absent in a conversation with someone, then this reflects how absent I am in a lot of things. I feel very spacey a lot. I love that quote.
I love that too. I guess I’ll have to wrap this up, you’ve got a life to lead. Do you collect anything?
Yes! Well, kind of. The girl I like collects buttons, so I give her buttons. Like a pin. Whenever I go anywhere, I get her a new button.
That’s the cutest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.
The first time I met her, I saw that she had a backpack full of pins so of course I’m looking for the rainbow one, trying to figure out if she’s LGBTQ. I actually had a random little pin I found that day on me, so I tried to do a smooth “I see you have pins, let me give you a pin”. And actually just today, two years later, I gave her a pin that says ‘women don’t owe you shit’. She thinks it’s cute I think, or maybe she thinks it’s annoying. I don’t know.
I’m sure she thinks it’s adorable! Blythe, thank you so much for your time and your interest and your vivacity. It has been super cool to talk to you and hopefully we’ll be able to meet each other face to face soon!