A love supreme

The photo essay that celebrates DK’s love for jazz, improvisation, and the big book of PLAY.

Happy International #JazzDay

Is it April 30? Happy International Jazz Day. Many thanks to Herbie Hancock and the United Nations for making IJD. Thanks to this year’s organizers for including DK’s first Kuala Lumpur event, STAMMTISCH, in the International Jazz Day global events listings. To celebrate, we made you a kind of mix tape. A visual mix tape, out of the jazzy images we’ve made over the years here at Design Kompany.

 

To celebrate

Jazz

S P A C E
presents

J A Z Z 

A   G A L L E R Y

Music? Music can save us. We’re not musicians, but we love music, and I, personally, love the improvisational music that is J A Z Z. Sometimes I like to make word-poems, like ‘The Good Stuff,’ with my team (listen on SoundCloud), but I’m mostly an appreciator. I like to go to shows and draw jazz with pens, some of those pictures are below, and sometimes, I just like to cut-and-paste while the music is playing. Live. It’s neat. It’s fun. It’s a good conversation. And it’s getting even better. Every year we meet new people, new artists, and we grow to learn more about the ‘how’ and ‘howcome’ of making Art and also making S P A C E. For now, here we are.

And here you go. May I present…

The gallery, ‘J A Z Z.’

The A side

The Cues and ‘Coletrane,’ at DK’s reception for ‘Today I Love You’ // Photo by OMNI // 2012
‘I Went 2 the City (and There Was Nothing There)’, NYC // 2011.
Poster for ‘3N,’ the international popup ‘big blind date’ salon // 2015
‘Book of Blue’ live collage installation, jazZ happens!, with Nu Vudthivichai, Bangkok // 2015
Art by DK for Gunslinging Bird // Live drawing at 5e Copenhagen // 2015
‘Book of Red’, art book series // Hanoi // 2012-17

ART x THE JAM. It’s funny. I just went to a jazz club and met some pianists who played ‘free jazz’ and ‘bebop’ and that was exactly what I wanted to hear. It is hard to come by this kind of thing, here in Asia, and in the middle of a streak of long, beautiful, meandering conversation jams I found myself boarding a bus away from KL to process everything and just kinda thinking, ‘Huh. It’s all right, then. Do the thing you want to do. Make it happen for you.’ Advice I’ve been given before, in the 1990s. By, none other than someone who introduced me to the late-late night sets of live jazz, wouldyoubelieve. More about that to come, later, in S P A C E for the members who have been part of these internet and interconnective conversations for the last four years. (Thank you).

The B side

At No Black Tie Wednesday night in KL, I met Aya Setine and Don Gomes. Talked art. Design. Writing. Engineering. Chatted away with for a long series of minutes about everything, including the good Loston Harris, whose work I really love and wish more people knew about. (Check out his cover of ‘Shall we Dance?’)

At the show, I came over with my usual supplies for the ‘Book of Songs’ series, which is an impromptu set compiled from whatever falls to hand in the moments-just-before. This time, I had my pens, paper, index cards, and a knife. For no reason, really. But a knife for paper-cutting. Just in case. Ball point pens, in this moment. And yeah. No clipboard this time. The ball point pen worked all right. (It didn’t leak. I have been in situations where it leaks, all over, embarrassing, but kinda fun, too, because yeah, like paint to canvas, pen to paper. Flying around. Getting into it. This is the jam.)

The whole thing.

Play.

 

‘Book of Songs’ x ‘The Mirror’
‘Book of Songs’ drawings made at La Fontaine // Copenhagen // 2015
Drawing for the ‘Book of Songs’ to live jazz, Siem Reap
‘Book of Songs’ at Cabaret, Phnom Penh
Math + Jazz popup salon co-hosted with Mathias Aspelin at Raffles Royale, Phnom Penh
‘Book of Blue’ popup collage and live drawing at jazZ happens!, Bangkok.

POETRY. Quickly, a shout-out. Next day, after the jazz show, there was more conversation about /the art of art/ and related tangents and suchmuch. Continuing the jamming, as there was, for me, a feeling of ‘anything is possible.’ And a conversation on Thursday. That came organically and easily, and in real life, the blind date that DK had with the poet Saarah Choudhury; wow. Look her up, ladies and gentlemen and watch this space: @eastwest_nomad, on insta. So good to meet her. And we are going to do a Q&A soon, so watch out for that, in S P A C E. (Join us, see link below for how to become a member). All of these threads got me singing in the shower again. And also, they sent me straight back to the very beginnings of this creative-life story, and the early 1990s, a time when I started writing, drawing, making it up. It’s really funny: most of the things I do are not for commercial use now. I used to do that. Day job in newspapers; illustration art (not a lot. I never managed to be any good at commission-getting with that). Not a problem, though. I let it evolve, because I needed to see where it would go. Big warm hugs to Patti Rieser, too, who taught me the ‘jazz step’ to dance to, a little bit of a square, but nothing at all squarish.

JAZZ DAY. DK are excited today to participate in a world event that brings people together to improvise, and play. Celebrating jazz, and for DK, listening out for new jazz in Southeast Asia, specifically. We’re looking forward to seeing more new voices coming out strong from this part of the world, and hoping to also make more stages (formal and informal) for all of us to get out of our regular confined melodies and play a little more !*…. What is ‘!*’? It is this. A very particular quality of space, one in which everyone is participant.

A jazz violinist, MT, got us started on this, talking about gravity and stars and constellations, so vacuous and expansive.

And a pianist, TE, inspired more, and over the years, DK happened to stumble into clubs where I found trumpet players ES (with whom we conversed with in a short Q&A here) and HG, and others, and there have even been conversations resumed from decades-old threads that started in those United States, a place called Brooklyn. Thanks, photographer Yamini Nayar, and architect IK. More recently, I am jamming on these art esoterica notes with musicians MD and GL. Talking. At length. About why we make, why we make art, and why we make space for making. These are big topics! I can expand, another time, in S P A C E.

 

Explore S P A C E

MEET US IN S P A C E. Two last notes! For how to be part of DK’s programmes, workshops, salons amd othet things we are making, sharing, doing, delivering, conversing about, and generally designing more and better S P A C E for. The jam. (There are a whole bunch of people to mention, as I think about the life and all the jazz I’ve gotten to know, bit by bit, over the years. Bebop. Free. Let me know where that’s going on, and I’m so there. With my pens, clipboard, and a bunch of paper.) See you in the up.

—>ARE YOU A MUSICIAN? Check out this page, ‘Introducing J A Z Z.’

—>ARE YOU interested in supporting DK’s work to make more and better S P A C E?  Join S P A C E—Become a member.

 

2PiR

THIS MONTH in S P A C E, DK are sharing the new collection, Circumference. It’s a selection of short articles DK had first shared in our eZine S P A C E. The pieces were written from January through December, 2016, the ‘Year of the Circle.’ During that time, DK explored big questions with our members in S P A C E, together delving into ideas about what it means to become part of ’round and not square relationships.’

What came out of that is what is inside these pages. You’ll get to enjoy a Q&A with a software designer in Leipzig who gave us the rundown on ‘How to start anything,’ plus ‘Remarks on Noteworthiness,’ a miniature report from behind-the-scenes of what it was like to create the space for ‘N’ London: NOTEWORTHINESS, which asked 16 strangers to convene at the National Theatre on a cold day on November 2016 to talk about ‘What’s remarkable? Why do we think so?’ Streams of consciousness from Kismuth Books. And a note about things found, and lost, in Phnom Penh. A medley, culminating with the new kind of writings to emerge in 2018: a transmission from the fourth dimension, ‘20804d.’

Generally, the series in ‘Year of the Circle’ pursues this line of query: What are some ways that we can do our work better, together?

Download it here.

Change starts with wanting to


 

PEOPLE WHO ARE ALREADY IN MOTION know that the hardest part about starting a thing is, well, starting.

In classic high school Newtonian physics, the coefficient of static friction is greater than the coefficient of kinetic friction. Which means that if you had a mass on a flat surface, for example, you would need less force to push it and keep it moving at a certain velocity if it was already in motion (kinetic) than if, say, it was just sitting there, not moving at all (static). Friction exists. Sure it does. It’s a fact of life. It’s just… Coping with it. If you only have a limited amount of effort you can make, might as well do it where you know that it’s going to have more impact. This is a topic that we are discussing in our current online programme, The Mirror. It’s been quite a few weeks of learning and discovering how to talk more, how to talk more clearly, and how to shape a space in our online forums that, I hope, will continue to seed new inspirations and angles on things, for those of us writing and interconnecting. What would be the map for that kind of quality exchange? How would its arteries be shaped, where would be the high flow channels? (Forgive me, I’m a civil engineer by training… I tend to enjoy things like fluid dynamics and city planning, and building infrastructure for social [ex]change.)

INITIATIVE. Naturally, because of the friction thing, you discover when you are trying out stuff that something new is harder to get going when it’s standing still, or ‘to get it off the ground,’ or to initiate. So much gets in the way. Cloudy headed from your own self-doubt, that’s one, that’s the first hurdle, then there are more and more layers that impede you from moving towards, well, just the starting line. Let’s be honest about it, shall we? Today, I wanted to share a little bit about some people who have inspired me. Specifically, I want to tell you about their work to take an initiative, not just talk, but actually do, to get past blocks, and actually make a thing happen. Two are in Cameron, one is in Melaka. Malaysia. Asia.

So much more to say here about how hard it is to go against the grain of what’s socially acceptable, and what your parents say, and what your peer group is doing, and the general rules about what you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing which are so, so hard to get around. None of them knew, at the start, if their venture ‘would work.’ The Cameron story is just a few months old, and the Melaka one a little longer, but the bonus points that I want to give here for the people who are making and doing are there because they are making and doing in Asia. (I can relate. I come from Asian roots. Even in those United States, growing up with the steadfast rules that Asia extends even when its natives go away, far away, breaking out of the boxes is never a cake walk.)

ASIA. Yeah. Here, it’s extra hard, for the handful of reasons I just mentioned, but also because there aren’t a lot of examples of really interesting creative risk taking. On account of maybe government censorship stuff, too, but also, hey, there’re just not a lot (that I can find easily) of the creative class scene (which is difficult to define, but you have a feeling of it when you see it, right?). Understandably. It’s so hard to get a thing that is new and different to be valued: much simpler to follow the lines that have already been painted for you, go through the motions, live within the boundaries instead of breaking out of the margins. Starting a business and doing it for yourself is hard, everywhere. But it’s multiply difficult to do it, in my opinion, if you are young and taking the chance, and going against what’s accepted in these parts of the world, where enterprise isn’t seen as cool and edgy, but a risk that might embarrass not just you, but those who are near to you. And saving face is such a big part of everything, here, that the whole ‘fail early, fail fast’ rah-rah stuff that the US West Coasters like to run around in cities of Asia touting as the way forward just simply doesn’t blend in with the native program. Does it make sense? With that background, what I’m sharing next, to me, seems extra impressive. Here are the two businesses I wanted to talk about today…

 

Map Travelodge, Cameron Highlands

Cousins Aaron Goh 吴秉洛, left, and Peter Goh 吴秉腾 started Map Travelodge. 

 

 

UP IN CAMERON HIGHLANDS, known locally as just ‘Cameron,’ I met a pair of cousins who started their own venture, and what struck me about it, was that, through dialogue and casual conversation over the course of four days, then ten, then, at the time of this writing, an embarrassingly lengthy perhaps 20, because once I find a place I like I tend to stick around, well, in the chats and learning I got to see that there are still people who are trying things, even when they don’t know what’s going to happen. Doing it on their own, doing it with their own gumption, and doing what they know a teensy bit about how is what Aaron Goh 吴秉洛 and Peter Goh 吴秉腾 are up to, in Cameron, their native town in the hills here in Malaysia, where I’m writing from at this moment. I wanted to come to the higher country and put down some thoughts about space, about geometry, about systems and emergence, but all of that is sitting in a pile of notes while I write today’s thing, which is about deciding to want to change.

You know, they could have continued doing their jobs: Aaron was working in a big hotel in Penang for six years. He’s now 26. His cousin, Peter, loves traveling and has tons and tons of beautiful photographs (and if you know me, you know I don’t just offer compliments easily, especially on photography). Based on his own travels, Peter told me he wanted to create a ‘backpacker’s home.’ He wanted it to have all the things you would want, if you were living out of a bag and being on the road somewhere. Cafe. Warm reception. Laundry. Food. Privacy in your own space, that sort of thing, And it does, this place, that the two of them co-founded. It’s called Map Travelodge, there’s a humongous wall map that you just can’t not look at for a long time, and I guess seeing that, straightaway, along with the rack of postcards that I found out only later were all taken by Peter himself (no Instagram, no big sign saying ‘look at my beautiful pictures,’ so rare and refreshing in the era of narcissistic exhibitionism. Taken together, to me these things add up to authenticity and being good. Speaking of which, I asked Peter what makes a photograph ‘good.’ He said it is about timing. Then he went and got a postcard with some lions. Their eyes really popped out, so deep and penetrating, and so did the azure of the background sky. Timing, he said, makes the difference. (The same could be said about relationships, how they develop. You watch you learn, you wait. It takes time to grow towards a thing, to feel yourself connecting with it. Right?)

 

Gastro Coffee Bar, Melaka

IN THE MIDST OF MY STAY IN CAMERON, I took a break to go down to Melaka, to see what my favorite cousin calls ‘hoopla.’ Touristy stuff. There, I discovered despite all the attractions and heritage stuff and people around taking pictures, that I only wanted to take one shot. It’s weird, doing this ‘just one shot’ in a place thing. In the past I was a freelance photographer full time. So that seems odd, but it’s what it is. These days, I only share them with people in DK’s online community, S P A C E. The cheapening of people and places through over documentation, the lack of attention to detail and relating to the people who are experiencing the detail, subverting qualify for something superficial and ‘sexy’, like food porn (?), or insta friendship… These are the sorts of things I got talking about with the owner and proprietor of Gastro Coffee Bar. It’s in a quieter street, not like you’d run into it if you stuck to the main one-day tour route. It took me a few days to warm up to talking about real things, but we did, and in depth, and I wanted to mention her here in this little note on the web about cool people, smart and talented, doing their best to make something out of scratch, despite the odds. (And frowns, from Society, and general I articulated but highly present, palpable dismissiveness, from The West.) Tough subjects!… But why avoid them? I got to meet the incredible Nisa Aziz, owner and proprietor, and the resident cat in her space, and to tell them that I don’t publish the most intimate pieces I write. Why? Relating. Takes time to work up to. A getting to know you. (Japanese-speaking friends might appreciate it put this way: a kaiwa that hazumu-s.) Well, yeah. Of course you want to relate. You want to feel your way towards knowing, a little, and being known is nice, if and when it happens, too. So you wait. Is there going to be a connection? That only time can tell. Or the lions, in the case of Peter Goh’s timing and photography. Letting themselves be seen, at last. Fully, fully naked, but only to the eye that has built the trust with them, a rapport. Relating. And now, let me return to Cameron, and complete the story there.

 

Being who you are

 

 

DOING THEIR OWN THING really impresses me, watching Gastro. And Map, and its day-to-day, and meeting the new staff who’ve come on since my return. Dealing with people, the front desk reception, isn’t easy work, especially when you have girls in the dorm who start obsessing arbitrarily about bed bugs, which I watched unfold one evening at about 1AM in a conference that, really, wow, to watch it… There weren’t any, bugs that is, there were just paranoid people who were taking pictures of flies or whatever and screaming away as they cross-referenced them with the Internet.

People are a little zany, at times. One girl talked for like 4 hours about it. There was an expert, a 22-year old who’d been talking with me quite calmly moments before about Love and Art, but subjects those are, too, and she came in to share everything she knew from having just experienced this, like how to cope with these things, yeah. She came in from another room, and started to give a mini lecture. This was what happened. Big-eyed people were shooting questions at her, and she happily replied in detail. ‘They look like this… you seem let me describe this, or wait, see, how this would be, the shape is this. Their feet look like this… They grow like this… The light changes it, they aren’t going to come out if there’s light… This is how to cope, and then… Make sure you… warm water… Don’t forget that these things are also good to know… And when that happens, this is what you can expect next…’ While all this went on, a dozen heads poked out, you had to open your curtain to hear, and we all leaned out, watching her. She lit up on that stage, expanding in long form about how bed bugs move around, reproduce, grow, and are eradicated. People jumped in with their burning questions. ‘Can they walk across the floor? Is my bag okay there? Have you seen one here?! Can they go through zippers? Can they eat clothing? Can they reproduce inside your sheets? Can they stay alive for days?’ I couldn’t help it. I just went, ‘Can they apparate?’…

 

All kinds of ways to try a thing

‘Kenya’ photograph on a postcard by Peter Goh.

A BUNCH OF PEOPLE would be gone the next day, as happens in a place like this that rotates clientele regularly. They’d go and more would come, and you’d hear the same exact stories every time. ‘We just got here. We’re going to figure out what trail or tour we’re going to do tomorrow, then we’re going to go for dinner.’ There are card games, or chess, in the common room, which is nice to see. Wifi is spotty so you just have to wing it, and it’s kind of refreshing to see people talking talking instead of just zoning out doing what I’m doing right now (typing into a device).

These things make me happy. People who are making things, sharing things. Doing things. Not because they have to, but because they want to. They’re not in this because they want to make a ton of money, that much is clear. They’re making a space. Just like us, here at DK. To host people. To give you a place to stop in, for a while. Make sure you’re comfortable, that the space you’re in is safe, and clean. How much more could you ask, when you’re on the road for a while, far from home? Yeah, it would be neat to share this coliving experience with friends or family, one day, but my friends and family aren’t about to hop on a plane to Asia and stop in to a hostel with me for a while!… Ludicrous!

I guess there’s just a stigma around pushing out of your zone, challenging your static friction coefficient, in a way, and going and doing whatever you bloody well feel like doing. It’s a luxury and privilege, I recognize, to be able to do this moving forth and generally meandering thing, but now that I look back on the last five years, I realize it’s more than that. It’s wanting it. Change starts there. With wanting it. You can go and stay where you are and wish and hope and talk about things, but you don’t really go and do them not because you can’t, but because, deep down, you don’t really want to. Me? I’m not interested in turning this blog into a ‘how we did it’ thing. That’s just dumb. I’m interested in sharing tools and tips and resources with people like Nisa, Peter, and Aaron, who are young and on their way. They’re already experiencing the ups and downs that will continue to befall them, there’s no going around it, you just have to go through. But you teach yourself so much when you do… Go through.

Like business, like travel, like starting new chapters, change is the thing that has to come from within, from wanting it. Not for everyone. And to return to that question of what makes a thing good, I’ll love to tell you more about that, if you become part of S P A C E in March or April, where the theme is Quality. (Sharing, for me, has to start with relating, and I just can’t do that on the public Internet, these days. Not for everyone.)

LUXURY OF TIME. The space to create. These are things that a lot of people I’m reconnecting with, so far, this year have said they really wish they could have, and seem to think that I have, and therefore there is a sense of… How can I say to them, it’s not about having it. It’s about designing for it. What you want. That’s just not a popular viewpoint. But, so? It’s mine. And apparently, with the new people I’ve met and written about above… it’s theirs, too.

Proceed with caution. But don’t stop.

This story was underwritten by members of S P A C E. Join us.

A green space in George Town Penang

ATELIER S P A C E is just underway here in George Town Penang.

In a planning session, ‘Creative Process’ came up. Questions about the approach towards creating new things. Most important, one guest said, is that there is a chance to reflect on one’s own self and self-learning–that this is more important, perhaps, than sharing. There were some counterpoints, too. If it’s not something a person can grasp, then why should there be interest, for ex. A thought: how much of the creative process is important to make space for public sharing, and how much is for personal discovery? Where can we explore how to make a thing both intriguing (to us) and relatable (to others)? Or is that even important? (If it’s Art, maybe not. If it’s Design, maybe so. Or?)

Our theme for S P A C E || Penang is Growth.

Check out all that’s ahead in Penang at this page.

Next stop, KL.

Being offline more

WIFI. Is scarce, here, in Penang. So, more offline time.

Eye contact.

As I talk in real life about the why of Atelier S P A C E, it’s doing something, it’s making it clearer.

As in, why.

As in, for whom, and where.

I seek cozy spaces that might not be ‘regular’ for philosophical and nonlinear meanders into the abstract. But… That’s what it is. Think about it. Space is invisible. But space connects us al. That particular S P A C E. Is what we are designing, in Atelier S P A C E. Really.

Don’t believe me?

Check out our gallery, and learn about our process to invite new people to join us in these kinds of things, as we blogged it all for ‘N’ Hanoi.

NEW & DIFFERENT. Wherever you look going to be a wallop of awakening; that’s because you’re in the newness, you’re in a spot that you haven’t been, and though it might be ho-hum routine for those who are living and working there usually, for you it is New. I didn’t tell you about S., did I? This weirdo installation… Involving… Well, wait. it’s too personal to put on this blog.

In the last 20 years of trying to find ways to engage people (so that I can get more engaged with the design work I think is better as a result, to be really honest), I have learned that the high-quality space that I want to create more of in this world resides in the real life bounded box of time, and location, which is set. Which is intentional. And good because we are *there*.

So yeah. If we meet, in one of the cities where I’ll be traveling, in 2018, I can share there.

(More for members of our online community, S P A C E, in exquisite and intricate details. Curious? Subscribe here.)

 

Transformational change starts with space

Fig I. Reading about change. Transformational change, in fact.

***

 

 

WHY DO WE INSIST on ‘making space for uncertainty?’ here at DK? Because it’s important to give room for things to emerge… things like *transformational* change.

SN, whom we met a few years ago in Phnom Penh, said this of innovation: ‘Innovation is designing solutions to the right problems, solutions that users love to use.’

Then DM, whom we’ve gotten to know remotely over the last five years ’cause of our shared interest in design for innovation, filled us in on his observations from experience that tons of people in the upper echelons of management love to *talk* about innovation but don’t actually know how to implement ways to create space that lets it happen in a _real_ way. Or see the value.

But there is value.

Of course there is.

But what? How to articulate it?

This might help illuminate the ‘why’ of making space.

Just came across a 2014 article (link below), by two folks whose titles tell us they study and think a lot about management and innovation. They say: ‘The challenge lies in shifting the role of the executive from *change agent in chief* to *change enabler in chief*.’ (emphasis mine)… Leaders need to give more attention, they say, to ‘the creation of an environment where deep, proactive change can happen anywhere—and at any time.’

What if?

Could it work?

IF PEOPLE HAD LOTS of room to simply converse, confer, and discover their way towards some kind of ‘a-ha!’ What problems might be given voice to, then given potential ideas to help alleviate, if we could just listen more to one another? Make a space. Who was it, of our old strategy mentors, who called this ‘hallway wisdom?’ Or maybe it was our own AM. Yes, probably.

The coolest things can bubble up when you’re just giving yourself time and space to reflect, to not-think, but feel-think your way towards some kind of… a-ha. In personal leadership, as well as business decision-making, too.

Let me leave you with the link to the article that I found. Helps us all see that more time and space for things to *be let to emerge* would be a good way for *transformational* change, not just ‘let’s do this and force everyone to do it’ push agenda that makes everyone roll their eyes, or throw up, or quit. Your thoughts? Curious. Listening. Meet DK on facebook, to discuss…

The link: http://www.mckinsey.com/…/build-a-change-platform-not-a-cha…

 

Nomad life of artist-wanderers

FOUND THIS.

From Culture360:

In 1996 Michael Haerdter of Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien called artists “post-modern nomads” or “wanderers between cultures”. 

Migrating artists, he said, “belong with the many transcultural messengers of a world whose keywords are nomadism and globalism.”

Goes on to say the fact that we see the invention (and spreading about) of residential art centers relates to the need of artists “to experience the world and its many environments and cultures, to realise in situ research and projects, to be temporarily part of creative communities, and to profit from the opportunity they offer for exchanging ideas and know-how.” The author of the article notes that even 15 years after his presentation, Haerdter’s observations on nomadic artists and residencies retain “their poetic resonance,” pointing out how it’s now far easier and more common to move around.

Such mobility is “an essential element of any professional artist’s career,” it continues, adding the usual things about how it’s hard to keep things relevant and economically viable in the culture of transitions.

A little free S P A C E

QUESTIONS. What is the value of seeking, exploring, and discovering new and different ways of thinking? What do we mean by ‘value’? Let’s converse about the role of the artist in society, and other kinds of meandering discussions, in S P A C E. More for those who are just joining us, when you add your name to this list…

16N in a pic

AT LAST, the picture of our guests at ‘N’ Hanoi: NARRATIVE. What stories do we tell to the world? Which ones do we tell ourselves? In this brief encounter, 16 people whose paths might not have otherwise crossed conversed and wrote, read and listened, in a space of just 2.5 hours. A magic moment. *!

’16N’ Hanoi happened on 27 June 2017.

A Q&A with author Michelle L. Stephens: ‘Venturing into the unfamiliar’

[Update: Before Design Kompany became a roving atelier to gather people’s stories on the spot in real life, we were gathering perspectives in our online community, behind protected-pages at this blog. This post was originally an exclusive for a forum, ‘The Village,’ on work, life, and relationships.]

TODAY I INVITE you to read a short email conversation with Michelle Lynn Stephens, a poet I’ve been in touch with since the time we met at a fun open mic. We share roots in Durham, NC, and recently reconnected when I hosted a tweet chat about self-publishing. That opened a space for an entirely new conversation, in which I got to know more about where things have gone for Michelle since we met. Here’s our interview, which took place over email through the spring of 2017. This piece was originally published as an exclusive for our online community, S P A C E.

 

Venturing into the unfamiliar

DK: We talked in our email conversation about journeys. And leaving, and how that can inspire us. Can you talk about this a little bit?

Michelle L. Stephens

MS: How interesting that you should ask this question, as I met you at the beginning of my open mic journey! I am definitely the adventurous type. I love trying new platforms and traveling to different venues. I have met so many wonderful people who have been very supportive and eventually became my creative village.

DK: Can you tell us about what you’ve written, so far?

MS: My book is The Divorcée Chronicles. And I co-authored an anthology, Single Mama Dating Drama.

DK: OK. Besides writing and traveling, I think we also talked about family. And… dating? 

MS: The sequel to Diary of a Divorcée Diva is all about dating, but nowhere near finished. There is a tad bit of dating adventure in the first book and my short story in the anthology is about getting back out there after divorce. The anthology is focused on single mothers, so that may be where you are remembering the parent thing.

DK: But then, there is the massive adventure of parenting right? The ultimate adventure into the unknown? 

MS: Kids are fun and inspiring! The only downside is losing sleep sometimes when they are young and finding courage to let them go off own their own when they are older… While my toddler is my only biological child, I have had a plethora of little ones in my life and don’t feel particularly new to parenting. I have always taken care of children and it feels very natural to me.

My mom tells me that I wanted to do whatever she did with my baby sister, such as feeding her, combing her hair, rocking her and such. I took care of my baby cousin, I have several godchildren who call me ‘Ma’, I volunteered at daycare and after school care programs as a teen… I once had stepchildren who I adored and I take my niece and nephews around with me quite often.

DK: After we met in Durham, where have the journeys taken you?

MS: My circle in Durham encouraged me to share my talents with so many others. I may have been afraid to venture back out after my California dreams faded into the working world, if it were not for my arts experience in Durham. It is a place that embraces and supports the arts tremendously. The path from Durham led me to the next town over, then to major cities like Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to share my words. I gained the confidence to submit my work to some heavy hitters in African American literature and became a part of a book project that turned into a #1 National Bestseller. My territory is ever increasing and I dream of seeing my work on the big screen someday, but I would also like to remember where I came from and remain a part of the circle that started me on my way.

DK: On your way… to where? Curious.

MS: I have back and forth from the DMV area often, as my significant other takes on mostly government contracts. I love the arts up there as a spectator, but unfortunately have not been able to participate much as an artist. I have no support system there, as far as babysitting goes. There’s always a book festival, library event, or museum to stop by in DC and the scenery is quite inspiring…

DK: Venturing out seems important to you.

MS: I am a firm believer that venturing out into the unfamiliar serves to strengthen your creativity. It opens your eyes to things you have never seen and expands your worldview. I have not traveled as far as you have, but testing the waters up and down the East Coast has been very fulfilling. Even before I began doing poetry and publishing, I was off to California and exploring the performing arts world. I experienced being among the best performers, in the audience of great theaters, in studios, filming for television on Hollywood sets, at casting and modeling agencies and briefly attempted to form a singing duet. My time there was amazing and continues to influence my writing and stage performances today. There is, however, a time for stillness when it is time to gather your thoughts on the page.

DK: Who are your favorite artists?

MS: My favorite artists are two alumni of North Carolina Central University, my late aunt, educator Barbara Tuck Ebron and the incomparable Ernie Barnes, a Durham native.

DK: Art venues?

MS: My favorite museum is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. They have very diverse exhibits with everything from presidents to Native American experiences to African American musicians and writers on grand display.

DK: Can we share an excerpt of one of your books?

MS: Yes…

From The Divorcée Chronicles: Diary of a Divorcée Diva… 

I never felt so free as I did on that flight to LAX. The sky was the limit and I was literally on top the world, looking down on it from Cloud Nine. No one could tell me anything would ever go wrong ever again at that moment in time. After chatting it up with Darren a little bit about my hopes and dreams as always, he suggested that maybe I should look into moving to Cali, too. It would be the perfect place to start a totally new path in life and get away from all my troubles. I daydreamed myself about it right on to sleep.

“Good evening, passengers. This is your Captain speaking. I hope you have enjoyed your flight. We are approaching our destination and fully expect a safe and uneventful landing. Thank you for joining us. Have a good night.”

Waking up to stare out the window at the stuff that dreams are made of was surreal. The view of the Concrete Jungle, with all that water surrounding it, was amazing. I saw nothing but miles and miles of highway and bright lights! I had on my cute little sleeveless cotton dress that was hit just above the knee and got a rude awakening when I stepped onto the tarmac. The cold, sweeping air hit me right in the face.

“Whoa!! How can it be freezing in California in the middle of July?!”

“Kay, this ain’t Cackalacky. Ain’t none of that humidity out here. Don’t you know this is the desert?” Darren was always so thorough in his ex-planation of everything. Always had been, even back in the days when he was trying to tell me why we needed to break up and just be friends.

“You gone love the way it feels outside tomorrow when the sun is out, though. I’m telling you, Kay. The wea-ther is addictive.”

“Ok, I’m just gonna have to trust you on that one ‘cause it’s just freezing my legs off right about now!”

That night as I looked out the 12th-floor window of the hotel at all the lights that put the dark, tree-lined streets back home to shame, I was hooked and my mind was made up. If the rest of Cali was like the view from here, I was gonna call it home and soon.

The next day, Darren and I headed out to paint the town. He was right about the weather being gorgeous and we checked out the usual tourist traps like the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theater, then watched the many talented hopefuls acting out at Venice Beach. We toured the star homes and rode past all the famous places like Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, Capitol Records, and the Hollywood sign. We even checked out South Central and in the words of Ice Cube himself, I gotta say it was a good day.

“Tomorrow we’ll go look at the apartments I found online”, Darren said.

“If you decide to move here, you can just find something when you get to town because people move in and out around here all the time. It’s not like back home.”

DK: Thank you! Last question: What’s the best advice you ever got?

MS: Never give up!

A Poetic Narrative, by ‘N’ Hanoi

ON 27 JUNE 2017 in Hanoi, a mix of exactly 16 people got together for ’16N’, a traveling conversation salon on a theme that starts with an ‘N’. This time, our topic was NARRATIVE. ‘What are the stories we tell to the world? Which ones do we tell ourselves?’ and other questions popped to place as we took three floors of Nhọ Nồi, small cafe in Ba Đình, quite by surprise. An installation like no other ‘N’, this one resulted in a flurry of poetry-writing, on the spot.

This spot:

‘N’ happened here, Nhọ Nồi. (And on two other floors, too.)

***

 

FEW INSTRUCTIONS ISSUED FORTH, and that, I believe, is why this ‘N’ unfolded as prettily as it did. Days before ‘N’ at our first meeting, guest TN had said, poignantly, ‘Sometimes you have to let a thing happen instead of make it happen.’ Inspired by the notion that nothing needs to be forced (including the number 16), on the day itself, we let it flow. Looser, lighter than any other ‘N’ programme so far, this one gave way fully to the playfulness of our guests, I thought.

[Right, ‘N’ Hanoi? We did that. Didn’t we? We wrote impromptu, we eased into it, found a groove and a rhythm, and wound up having a poetry slam. More soon, in a protected-page post to follow with a certain picture, but for the moment, these are the three poems you all left behind… I thought you might like to read them again. To co-discovery! To meetings of chance! And to… real life. Enjoy, enjoy. More soon. <3]

 

***

I.
‘How do I fix this?’

I have always wanted to be blonde
Does everyone experience Fomo?
Fomo can be a motivation for someone?
I’ve recently started using the word “fomo” as an action verb.
Sadly, nobody understands what I say.
Sadly, sometime, people hate my pictures.
I think you’ll always find people that disagree with you.
I guess it depends only on their intentionsKeep taking photos!

Thankfully
you will be cured
during
the journey.
What can you break with the world’s smallest hammer?
Just forget it,
Use your
feet.

 

***

II.
‘Nameless’

I’m really terrible at remembering names.
LET’S HAVE BREAKFAST
She always loved him making her smoothies in the morning.
Then he popped a mint in his mouth;
I love these flowers
A terrifying hue of violet
‘Can terrifying be a positive description of something?’
‘Yes, if you overcome your fear…’
‘Terrible love cannot be overcome…’
‘Anything can be
overcome by
true love.’

 

 

***

III.
‘Subtle vibrations’

I have a life here.
14 people in the world are richer than all the rest, self-evidently
The truest measure of their riches
Is the willingness to fold themselves open
One day you will have all the love that you’ve given
If you have not given enough love, will you not be able
To see the love that everyone
Receives?
I see what I want to see. And you?
The sound that weasels make playing in a ball pit.
A little known fact: weasels are deaf, they can only feel vibrations.
*!
I wish I was a terrifying weasel
So I could produce terrific coffee.
Such a small thing like coffee
Can change your whole day! Why?
Because of no reason at all
Except that
We are
Here.