As a founding member of the legendary Dark Room Collective, Sharan Strange definitely knows the benefits and rewards of cultivating community. In anticipation of the 30th anniversary of the Collective's formation next year, Sharan took time to reflect on its legacy, her journey after the Collective, and her future endeavors.
"All of our voices are vital."
—The Auburn Avenue Editorial Staff
Dark Room Collective original founders (clockwise from right): Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange, and Janice Lowe / Photo: Patrick Sylvain
Dark Room Collective in 1996 (from left): Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Nehassaiu deGannes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange, Adisa Vera Beatty / Photo: Kwaku Alston
Members of the Collective on the cover of Harvard Magazine in Spring 2016. / Photo: Elsa Dorfman
2018 will mark the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Dark Room Collective. As one of its founding members can you speak about the motivation behind forming the group and its impact three decades later?
We founded the Collective in order to support The Dark Room Reading Series—which came first. After the reading series took off, we realized that we needed more folk to help sustain it and help it grow. The Collective attracted other like-minded artists who were serious about Black art and literature, especially in wanting to produce it. We also gave younger artists the opportunity to be “interns,” with the hope that they would keep the series going. It’s amazing to remember that Kevin Young (director of the Schomburg Center in Harlem), Tracy K. Smith (current U.S. Poet Laureate), and Kambui Olujimi (a significant emerging visual artist)—among others—all started out as interns in the Collective. The other impetus for creating a collective was so that we could support each other as aspiring artists by workshopping together and, eventually, traveling and reading our work together. It’s hard to calculate the impact—I feel that’s for others to say… One could suppose, for example, that the impact all these years later can be seen, in some part, in the individual trajectories of some of its former members. (But, I suspect their lives would have gone in those directions anyway…) Or, in the broader sense, that the DRC helped to foment and focus energy around Black literary arts at a vital moment, and that energy has continued to be carried forward.
You, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Janice Lowe formed the Dark Room Collective after attending the funeral of James Baldwin in December 1987. What impact has Baldwin had on your life and, specifically, on your writing?
Baldwin’s clarity has always excited me. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I put him in the tradition of the griot, and the elder whose wisdom and guidance sustains the community. I think I first encountered his work when I read Go Tell It on the Mountain in college. It profoundly moved me. Everything—his writings, as well as the interviews and biographies—revealed his complexity as a person, as an artist and activist, and made him an endlessly compelling subject to me. I related to his sense of both deep belonging and alienation, his spiritual struggle, his pain, and his determination to free himself of any illusions about society, his community, or self. I am motivated by the honesty in facing life, the intellectual acuity, empathy, and eloquence that marks Baldwin’s work. I still strive for that in every poem I write. I don’t claim any semblance of his gifts, but I do want my work to have at least some of his level of emotional depth and human insight. Like Morrison, Brooks, Baraka, and others, Baldwin has a truly transcendent voice. We will likely be listening to and learning from him for generations to come.
Several lauded black poets of today were members of the Dark Room Collective and the group itself hosted readings by many celebrated black poets of the time. Can you share some of your proudest moments from the Collective?
Opening our doors for the first season of the reading series and creating a sense of community with folks from all around Boston and New England: having people come after having spotted our flyers in the bar and lounge in Central Square (Cambridge) or in the barbershop in Dudley Square (Roxbury), or the bookshop in Harvard Square, or hearing about us by word of mouth in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain, or in cafes in Amherst and Providence…crowding our living room and hallway filled with art by local emerging artists, spilling onto the stairs and porch…bumping heads as they looked for the books we hid under the chairs at some of our readings… Forging relationships with our literary heroes: having Derek Walcott (before the Nobel Prize) read in our living room, and later having him “lend” us his Boston University Playwrights’ Theatre as a venue for the reading series once it outgrew our house…and Ntozake Shange at our house, too (with her own percussionist!), and later being her guests in Philly when the Collective read at the Painted Bride…Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara contacting us and wanting to come to The Dark Room after hearing about it from others...organizing a special evening together for old friends, composer T.J. Anderson, sculptor Richard Hunt, and novelist Leon Forrest, at the historic African Meeting House in Boston…hosting Amiri Baraka who really enjoyed his reading accompanied by our “house band,” Salim Washington & the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic… Celebrating our literary wealth: presenting our own Dark Room Awards (original works by artists Vusumuzi Maduna and Benny Andrews) given to Yusef Komunyakaa, Thylias Moss, and Samuel R. Delany in 1989 and 1990…reading together as a collective at Furious Flower I…decades later, during our reunion tour, celebrating the “Black Pulitzers” of Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith… Those are just a few of many!
Did the others within the Collective influence your personal work? If so, in what ways?
No doubt there was some influence, although I wasn’t consciously drawing from the others and I cannot point out specific examples of their influence on my work. At the time, I was more attuned to those older artists whom I admired. But with all art-making, I believe, one succumbs to influences in one’s immediate environment, even if simply through osmosis. Each of us had our own concerns, our own obsessions, our own “musics.” Being around each other was an act of mutual sharing and support. If anything, I’d say the influence came from kicking around ideas, and sharing what we found stimulating; it was one of whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re interested in, you can do it seriously here.
You all went on a reunion tour not that long ago. How was that experience?
The reunion tour was brief—only four cities (Chicago, D.C., New York, and Santa Fe), but it reaffirmed that we had done what we had all set out to do decades ago—become artists whose voices mattered in some way in our communities, and for many, in the larger literary landscape.
You were born and raised in Orangeburg, SC and attended college in the Northeast. Tell us about life after the Collective and your decision to return to the South.
I left Cambridge to study in an M.F.A program in New York, so my stint in curating the Dark Room Reading Series ended, but I continued to travel and read with the Collective. Before coming to Atlanta, I taught for several years at a small independent school in Washington, D.C. It was a challenging and rewarding experience teaching in a nontraditional school focused on experiential learning, and that also hosts an annual city-wide youth poetry festival (for which I’ve been the M.C. for over fifteen years now, and counting). I didn’t plan to return to the South, but the invitation to teach at Spelman is the reason that I’ve been in Atlanta all these years.
Speaking of your professorship at Spelman, how is it working at a predominately black, all women’s college and what have you gleaned about your own life as a black woman poet from your tenure there?
Teaching is a process of exploration and discovery with one’s students. As a Black woman, I appreciate being able to work with and mentor young Black women as they come to recognize the value and possibilities of language, the power in words. My ultimate goal is to help my students realize their own agency through writing. All of our voices are vital. I had to understand that in order to see the possibility of myself as a writer and, particularly, to see writing as a way out of no way—and, to sustain myself through personal obstacles as well as the hostility in this society toward people of color and other marginalized voices.
In what ways has living in Atlanta influenced you?
Although I grew up in a small rural town rather than a city, being here I have a constant reminder of my Southern roots—those “ghosts” of my past come back when I hear certain speech or see an old pickup truck, for example. But despite being in a car-congested urban environment, I’m also in touch with nature as I remember it, the same kinds of trees and plants, the red dirt, the familiar smell of the rain before and after a storm… Natural references always make their way into my poems. But, ironically, in Atlanta I also feel more isolated—possibly because I’m not a driver, and have to spend so much time just getting around? I have more solitude here. Outside of my teaching, I’m more alone with my thoughts and feelings, which is certainly an interesting experience—most of the time.
Has your view of the craft (poetry) changed over the years? If so, in what ways?
My view of craft hasn’t “changed” so much as expanded as I branched out to work more directly with visual artists, musicians, and composers over the years. I’ve always envisioned working with digital media, especially film, though that’s still in the works.
If you had to drop a few jewels of advice to up and coming poets or writers, what you give them?
I would tell aspiring poets and writers in all genres to seek out those contemporary and historical writers who make up the Literary Tradition—an ever-evolving and expansive tradition—who can serve as models and nurturers of their writing. Meet them through their works—on paper, digitally, or in person—and cultivate relationship with their bodies of work. To any aspiring writer, I’d say feel, think, read, study your craft, and write, write, write….
What is your take on current literary landscape? Any favorites or standouts?
Right now we are witnessing a proliferation of production of, and interest in, African American literature—due no doubt to the increase in our numbers in writing programs over the past twenty years, the efforts of literary organizations (Cave Canem, VONA, the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and others), and the existence of relatively long-standing publishers (Third World Press just celebrated its 50th anniversary, for example) as well as independent publishing start-ups. I think there’s a sense of revitalization, especially among poets. There are many established and emerging poets whose voices resonate…and many new voices, some of them strong voices. Just some of those whose collections are on my bedside table right now, or whom I’ve read or re-read lately, or anticipate reading include Safiya Sinclair, Aracelis Girmay, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Tyehimba Jess, Vievee Francis, Remica Bingham, Solmaz Sharif, Layli Longsoldier, Airea Matthews, Evie Shockley, Camille Rankine, Jamaal May, Natalie Diaz, Nicole Sealey, Cathy Hong, Samiya Bashir, Yona Harvey, Joshua Bennett, Terrance Hayes, Lauren Alleyne, Francine J. Harris, Robin Coste Lewis, Camille Dungy, Duriel E. Harris, Kazim Ali, Phillip B. Williams, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Danez Smith, Ashley M. Jones, L. Lamar Wilson, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Janice Lowe, Amanda Johnston, Bettina Judd, Kaveh Akbar, Jericho Brown, M. NourbeSe Phillip, Charif Shanahan, Patricia Smith, Nikky Finney, Heroes Are Gang Leaders, Thylias Moss, Brenda Marie Osbey, and on and on…. But, that’s why I don’t like to start listing—inevitably someone gets left off that I’ll remember too late! And I won’t pick favorites; I encourage you all to go out and discover your own favorites!
What’s next for Sharan Strange?
I’m finishing up a chapbook, which I hope will be out in spring 2018; another collection of poems is in progress; and, a new work for chamber orchestra from my continued collaboration with the composer Courtney Bryan will have its premiere performance in March 2018.