Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Chatting with Eboni Hogan About Writing, Dating, and Surviving as a Full-Time Artist

Written by Andrea Henchey
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Eboni Hogan is an award-winning performance poet, author, and teaching artist, who often moonlights as a Vargas girl, albeit a heavily tattooed one. Born in the Bronx to an emcee and a choir girl, Hogan studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the 2010 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, 2010 Underground Indies Slam Champion, the 2008 Urbana Grand Slam Champion, and a two-time representative of the Nuyorican Slam Team. She has performed and facilitated workshops in over thirty US cities, as well as abroad in Ghana and Germany. She is the author of Grits, a collection of poetry that was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize. She believes in the healing properties of bargain shopping, globe-trotting, and good whiskey. What follows is a transcript of her recent chat with poet Andrea Henchey. 
Photos Courtesy of Eboni Hogan

Eboni Hogan is an award-winning performance poet, author, and teaching artist, who often moonlights as a Vargas girl, albeit a heavily tattooed one. Born in the Bronx to an emcee and a choir girl, Hogan studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the 2010 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, 2010 Underground Indies Slam Champion, the 2008 Urbana Grand Slam Champion, and a two-time representative of the Nuyorican Slam Team. She has performed and facilitated workshops in over thirty US cities, as well as abroad in Ghana and Germany. She is the author of Grits, a collection of poetry that was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize. She believes in the healing properties of bargain shopping, globe-trotting, and good whiskey. What follows is a transcript of her recent chat with poet Andrea Henchey.

Andrea: So, how does it feel to be back in Brooklyn? Which is the better poetry town: New York City or Chicago?

Eboni: Brooklyn is my heart. If I were a borough, I’d be Brooklyn. I missed the flavor, the style, the pretty people. I needed to be back home. And between Chicago and New York, New York wins the poetry game, every time.

Andrea: Did you just come up with that shit now?

Eboni: In the womb, kiddo.

Andrea: I would think of saying that in the shower, like, two days from now. Like, I should have said x.

Eboni: Brooklyn keeps me on my toes at all times.

Andrea: OK. So we’ve got you located. What else is going on with you these days? What are you working on? What are you most excited about?

Eboni: My first stab at a one-woman show debuted at the Nuyorican Poets Café on September 28th. It was just the first staged reading but I was terrified. Which was a good thing.

Andrea: Do one thing every day that scares you. Or something like that. Who said that? Eleanor Roosevelt? That’s awesome, though. [Did] anyone film it? Will people who miss[ed] it live be able to catch it?

Eboni: The full production will hopefully be staged sometime this winter or spring. This [was] really just a chance for outsiders to hear the script for the first time so I [could] get feedback before I embark[ed] on a long rehearsal process. So, no YouTube videos until I don’t look so awkward and scared.

Andrea: Super, super exciting. How did this all come about? Perhaps we can talk a little bit about where you’ve been with your work and what brought you to this stage? Ha. Stage. Do you feel like this is a natural progression of your previous work or something entirely new?

Eboni: Well, the play is called Foreign Bodies and I’ve been writing it since 2007. Yeah. That long. Before I was a poet, I was an actress. A high school theater nerd who graduated and went on to study theater at NYU. I found classical theater to be stifling. I just couldn’t see myself playing Chekhov’s characters. I’d always loved to write so I started self-scripting . . . and writing poems. The poems hit the jackpot before the plays did. This is my first effort to combine the two worlds.

Andrea: Wow [dumbstruck]. I’m sure there are a lot of Sadie readers who’d like to know how you did it.

Eboni: Yeah, I was hoping the audience at this play reading would be dumbstruck and not just struck dumb.

Andrea: I mean, process. Ha!

Eboni: The process of writing the play or getting into poetry?

Andrea: To stick with a project that long. Both, really. How do you keep going with something for years and years? And do you “force” yourself to write? Do you have routines?

Eboni: Getting into poetry was actually fairly simple, though making it a career hasn’t been. I had a roommate who was in a poetry class while I was taking a semester off and she suggested I sit in on the class and follow them on field trips. So I was the unenrolled creepster that followed them to the Nuyorican one night, ended up slamming and loved it. I’ve been slamming ever since, though I do it less and less these days. I made a few teams, won some shit, started touring. And it all happened in about five years time.

I used to write every day, all day. I got in trouble in acting classes for writing when I was supposed to be doing, you know, weird, actory shit. Now I write when I can. I write when moved to write. But I find I’m more finnicky. I have to have the perfect conditions. Mood lighting. Certain ambiance. Specific writing utensils. I’ve become a diva when it comes to pumping work out. This is probably why it has taken me five years to write one play . . .

Andrea: Dixon Ticonderogas?

Eboni: No sir. I’ve got this one pen. A no-namer. It writes like it’s made of butter. And Jesus spit.

Andrea: But you stuck with it. That takes a degree of faith, no?

Eboni: I realized pretty quickly that as an artist, there’s a good chance you’re going to have times that you’re the ONLY one who believes in you. I’m all that I’ve got some days. I had to start believing in my art.

Andrea: That sounds like something someone just stepping onto this path should hear.

Eboni: I’m grateful I had people there for me from the beginning that taught me how to fight for myself. Ask for the money I’m worth. Believe wholeheartedly that I am doing something bigger than just writing poems.

Andrea: Who were those people? Who shaped the writer/performer you are today? I think it’s easy to see your successes, but what kind of struggles or challenges have you had to face? You suggested before that maybe it hasn’t always been easy.

Eboni: I’ll answer the last question first, then the one about career challenges. Mahogany Browne, Jive Poetic, and Nathan P were the first people who saw me at the Nuyorican and decided “Alright, let’s put this chick on.” I was maybe nineteen or twenty and my poems were just plain awful. But I had heart. And unending drive. Mahogany specifically has taught me pretty much everything I know about slam and how to make a life as a full-time artist. She fights so damn hard for this community and for up-and-coming artists. Not only is she my publisher [and] my sometimes booking agent, she’s one of my dearest friends and confidants.

Andrea: Ah, that’s so lovely. I hate to pile the questions up, but at some point I’d like to hear more about how important you think it is to have a community of other writers. What would you say to a young writer who is perhaps feeling as if she doesn’t have access to that?

Eboni: Poetry started as a hobby. But I was tired of working odd jobs. I was tired of turning down amazing feature offers just to get up and go to the same tired, emotionally exhausting jobs that utilized little to none of my actual talents. I became a full-time artist almost three years ago. I’ve had good months (the money! the traveling! yay!) and horrible months (no money, no offers, bills, bills, bills) and recently the economy has been quite the train wreck. I recently started bartending again. Something I never wanted to do again. I’m still booking shows and writing and performing but unfortunately, I also want to be able to enjoy the finer things in life sometimes. And I have a shopping addiction, so there’s that. I guess I got tired of ramen and sleeping on other people’s couches.

Andrea: I hear you. Bartending and writing aren’t nearly as compatible as I imagined they would be.

Eboni: If I did not have the community that I have in poetry, I wouldn’t be doing poetry. Straight up. I might even go so far as to say, I might not be alive. My innermost circle of friends are my blood. Our bonds go way beyond writing workshops and sharing stages. There is a love here like nothing I’ve ever experienced even amongst my own blood relatives. If there is a need, it is answered. These are the types of relationships I know will last until we’re too old to remember our own names. We’ll be reading each other poems, drinking whiskey, and talking shit in the nursing home all-purpose room.

But that’s my closest circle. It’s not all kumbaya and peace and blessings. Poetry is just like real life, as it turns out. Folks in it have a hard time with that fact. I don’t have to love everyone. Or respect everyone. Or even be nice to everyone. People think that just because we do something sensitive like write poems that we all gotta hold hands. I love hard. But I’ve also had to learn to protect myself. Being a young woman in this poetry world has been a lesson in graceful self-defense.

Andrea: Uh oh. You said love, so you know what I’m going to ask next.

Eboni: I’m pretty sure I do . . .

Andrea: We’ll make it general then, eh? Do you think, based on your, ahem, observations, that artists should date other artists?

Eboni: Not that I’ve spent the last several years of my life dating poets/painters/photographers/guitarists/dancers/drummers/emcees/tattoo artists/wannabe rock stars or anything but I know a little something about it. I know two things: One, I will never pursue a serious relationship with a male poet in the spoken word/slam community ever again. Been there. Bought the T-shirt. About ten months I was in a relationship with a poet that most people know in this community and it ended terribly. Our whole relationship was a three-ring circus. People jokingly placing bets on how long it would last. And then came the poems. No one wants to be cast in a negative light in a poem but if that’s his truth, who am I to chuck tomatoes at him? And there are poems I’m ready to write. About us. About that relationship. And I find myself pushing them to the back of my mind because I’m so afraid to seem like the obsessive, crazy ex. Two, unfortunately, I can’t see myself marrying a banker. So, this shall be my life. Always loving the ones that are the hardest to love. Le sigh.

Andrea: Ugh. The idea of not writing something I want to write is so painful.

Eboni: It’s like having to pee. For forever.

Andrea: Laughing loud enough to wake up the pregnant Dutch roommate.

Eboni: And that is the quote of the day.

Andrea: Oh. My. God. Can’t. Stop.

Eboni: Being a poet, delving into the murk and mud of what it is to be human, takes a certain kind of crazy. Two poets together is just too much crazy for my taste.

Andrea: Well said, my friend. I would like to ask about the balance between humor and heartbreak in your work. But I’m not sure how to ask what I want to ask. Maybe I’m just observing. I’m observing: sometimes your shit is really, really funny. And sometimes it breaks my heart.

Eboni: I’ve got a history of trauma. Enough trauma that I could write a thousand poems about abuse, sexual assault, heartbreak, and loss that make audiences weep. But it would break me every time I had to read those poems. Sometimes I need more than anything to read those poems that sting. But I don’t know that this is where the healing comes for me. The healing is in finding the moments of light and joy even in the darkest tales. I want to say I survived all of this and came out on the other end laughing and making other people laugh. I’m also generally a goofy, wild, fun-loving chick (with an edge, for sure) and I want for my work to be a reflection of me at all times.

Andrea: Yes, yes! Like your body of work can be seen as a whole. I’m trying to come up with a word other than multifaceted. Shit.

Eboni: I like multifaceted. I also like the phrase “not boring.” Being “not boring” is good too.

Andrea: Yes, you are definitely not boring. So . . . where can people see you and/or find out about your shows? Do you have a Web site?

Eboni: I’m working on the Web site but I’m on Twitter all days saying crass things. Also, Facebook. And my work is available for viewing pleasure on YouTube, of course.

Andrea: Which one are you most jazzed for people to see on YouTube?

Eboni: I barely know what’s on YouTube these days. There could be footage of me riding a unicorn butt-nekkid and I wouldn’t know. Which would be awesome.

Andrea: We’ll look for that one, then. OK, last bit of advice for young writers?

Eboni: Read. Don’t ever think you’re beyond that. Surround yourself with amazing books. Poetry, prose, whatever. Read. A. Book.

Andrea: Beautiful.

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