Briauna Taylor is a queer poet, teaching artist, and seeker of magick in Portland, Oregon. She created and facilitated the youth writing programming and open mic series ‘Mind & Mouth’ with former radical youth non-profit MarrowPDX. She leads youth and all ages writing workshops across the city, most recently her newest project, Tender Community Garden. Her teaching practice uses writing and divination as a tool for reflection, self-illumination, and the navigation of grief. Her work speaks to the exploration of the ethereal self, the psychic realm, death positivity, and mental health. Her poetry has been featured in SUSAN the journal, and she’s self-published a book of poems, Nightwell.
We spoke this month on objects as tools for transmuting experiences, the fleetingness of forgiveness, and paper flowers.
Briauna Taylor: I have to go to the craft store.
Molly Gunther: For what?
B: It’s actually funny, but I’m going to be leading an arts activity alongside a free lunch program that’s happening in Portland parks during the summer. I was asked to do it and accepted and then found out that the age range is like five to seven year olds.
M: Okay not your usual audience.
B: And obviously it’s gonna be such a short, chaotic, distracted…it’s in the park. It’s gonna be hot. Their main goal is that they’re getting people fed. So I’m just gonna make paper flowers with them. I spent some time researching some really quick easy paper flowers and I’m gonna do like a tissue paper pom pom garland for my little area and then have some premade ready to go so if they don’t feel like they wanna make one they can just take one. But I’ll have some really easy step by step paper flowers. Some pipe cleaners and tissue paper.
B: Yeah I think it’ll be cute.
M: How did your recent IPRC [Independent Publishing Resource Center] class go with the teenagers?
B: The class was really rad. They were with me for an hour and then they were with a printmaker, who does letterpress printing for the rest of the time. We did some visual poetry stuff where I brought, like magnetic poetry and other items in a little paper bag. And that was the writing prompt, like first association–whatever you first thought of when you opened each of the items up. And then a lot of the prints that they made were with the language that we used during the generative writing stuff. So some of it was a little obscure. Like one of them did like a red half moon shape and in really bold large letterpress text it was ‘Blood Elaborates.’ I was like that’s so rad, I love that one. And she’s like, ‘Yeah, it was from your prompt.’ Like duh! So they sort of took that and transformed it into a print.
M: What are some of your favorite prompts or exercises to use during your workshops?
B: I think one of my favorite ones that I do is with the found objects. So just bringing in little items that I’ve collected like a tarot card or a rock from the yard. Maybe some dried flowers or a snippet of poetry. I have a bunch of texts that I tend to recycle and alter. I think that’s really fun especially to use with youth because they just start writing as soon as you tell them to begin. Whereas adults they’re more apt to draw a blank. And then beyond that, I really like to use archetypal narratives in writing prompts especially with teenagers because they already have everything inside and want it to come out, you know? It needs to get heard. Anything that has to do with the road ahead or the present landscape of the world, they always have something really insightful and interesting to draw on. It’s more about what’s happening around them and less about what’s happening to them.
M: What’s something you’ve learned from working with young people?
B: Just that there’s so much more that we’re capable of exploring within our lives and our bodies, hearts, minds, etcetera, than what most people are taught they can do. What I think is really amazing about working with youth, is I’m always like, oh yeah, that is kind of a limiting idea and we can transcend that belief and radically realign ourselves to new language and new states of being that perhaps felt out of reach. Like you can push the gender binary and the gender stereotype. We can reevaluate the language that we use to describe things and not get offended when perhaps our perspective is being challenged. Like, ‘Hey, I would rather you didn’t use the word crazy anymore,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’ We can. We can find another word to use. That’s just one example, but I think that’s the simplest way to describe that you can challenge the things that we’ve come to know in a compassionate and supportive way.
M: Now you’re someone I see with skills that are so vital, especially after this past year when we’ve all been feeling very isolated with our eyes glued ever more so to our phones and to the internet and social media. How have you worked through that with yourself or with your community?
B: Well during the pandemic, I started the workshop series, Tender Community Garden, which was an artistic reaction to that feeling of isolation. We wanted to call it that because there’s so many things, when talking about cultivation, that run parallel to human growth. During the winter everyone was feeling really somber and there was a lot of grief and loss associated with this old way of living. And there was something really beautiful about approaching this community and doing writing exercises that were more rooted in self-reflection and introspection than for the purpose of crafting a poem or creating a piece of tangible art that you can pass to the world. It was really just for yourself, and supporting each other in the self-nurturing that’s required to survive this type of experience.
So during the winter we were drawing on the fact that it’s really hard to watch everything die and fear that it won’t come back again. We know it does. But even though it happens every year of your life, it’s still such a collective moment that we’re all moving through. I mean people get more depressed during the winter. They feel more isolated. There’s a real cyclical, emotional wheel there and it was really special to have support in that community during that time.
M: A phrase you use a lot in relation to your teaching practice is ‘emotional authenticity.’ Tell me what that phrase means to you.
B: I came from an upbringing where all of my emotional reactions were always a problem. And I feel like the thing that helped me the most, even if at the time it caused me the most hardship, was that I have always been unapologetically emotionally authentic. I think that we’re taught we need to hold ourselves back in that way. And that’s the most important thing for me as an adult to teach the youths is that you’re allowed to be unapologetic in your body. You’re allowed to be unapologetic in your emotions. And sometimes you’re going to have to reevaluate things and perhaps make some tough decisions or have some hard conversations with people. Of course don’t be an asshole, but speak your truth, live in your truth, dismantle the world’s disdain for vulnerability and softness and allow yourself to fully reach in.
One of my mentors when I was coming up in the slam poetry scene was Beau Sia, who’s still an amazing artist and poet, but still to this day, I’m 30 now, is the most impactful mentor that I have had. He would always tell me when I was writing poems, to tell the truth. Like, this is great rhythmically or melodically, but are you telling the truth? Is this your truth? I think that’s when we’re ultimately writing the best things or [making] art is the best, when it’s just raw and true.
M: Can you share a bit from your time as a youth, and how that led you to the space you’re in now?
B: So going way back, I was institutionalized when I was 15. It was an inpatient rehabilitation center for ‘good kids who make bad choices.’ And we were really stripped of everything. I had to change out of my clothes and my signifiers, all the things that made me feel like I identified in my body, adornments or what have you. You were given plain pants, a plain shirt, and you weren’t allowed to keep anything in there. You weren’t allowed to keep a notebook, or mementos of any kind. No comfort objects. We would have these rest periods where they would put on music and we would have an hour to just write and that was kind of the first moment where I felt a freedom in writing because I had nothing. I was taken out of my home, taken away from my family. Everything tied to my identity was taken away from me. And all I had was what was inside. I would write and write and write and whatever I wrote would be destroyed, you weren’t allowed to keep it. It would get thrown away. At that moment, I didn’t have a way to name what was happening to me and I also didn’t really realize that a lot of the time I didn’t know what day or month it was. We kept track of how many days we were there and I think I was there for roughly 10 months.
M: That’s a long time!
B: Yeah it was a really long time and you only saw your parents like once a week in this really bizarre way where we would be sitting on this stage-like situation and we had to sing “Lean on Me” acapella.
M: Every week?
B: Yeah every week. It was just like one of those things where it doesn’t even sound real. Coming out of that I had this boyfriend who was really into the slam poet, Buddy Wakefield. He gave me this note with a line from a Buddy Wakefield poem and then we listened to the spoken word track in his car one day. And I just remember thinking that’s what I want to do.
Fast forward I’m immersing myself in poetry and slam and I performed at Brave New Voices which is the international youth poetry slam festival. I wrote this poem about coming out of that time where I was put away for just being myself and being a kid. I felt like my parents didn’t try and really see me. They were just kind of like, this is too much, we can’t deal with this. And it was a poem about taking care of my mom in a way that I wasn’t taken care of by her. I was one of the only ones in that bout that drew all 10s from the judges and you know, during slam it’s about the shock factor. You’re like pulling one liners. But Beau whispered in my ear, ‘Look around, everybody’s cheering for you. You belong here.’
And I just kind of carry that with me. Just, you belong here. And that’s essentially why I do what I do because I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. And of course my goals have shifted. I’m not a slam poet. I don’t have recorded poems. I’m not widely published. We’ll see what the future holds, but I think I really shifted toward giving that same meaning to another person so they could draw that power back that was taken away from them.
M: Can you describe a moment or what it feels like to see when something clicks for the kids you’ve mentored, or they experience a shift in some way?
B: Yeah it actually happens a lot. More often than not, the youth are like, ‘Oh I’m not really a writer’ and we get into it, and they’re always really surprised and proud of themselves. And then having that supportive encouragement afterwards where I’m like, ‘Look, look what you made. Coming in here saying that you can’t do this, and you just did it.’ That’s probably my favorite moment is just like watching, it’s like the tea that you put in the hot water and it sort of opens up into a little flower while it steeps. And then they get to take that with them and either keep it secret or show it off. And most often they want to show it off.
M: What is the structure of your current workshop?
B: Currently it’s a web-based workshop and I run it with my creative partner. We try to do it bi-monthly and come up with a theme. So this one at the end of July, the theme is energetic renewal. Coming out of Cancer season and entering into Leo season which is just a lot more generous, boundless love and attention. I wanna talk about the preservation of selfhood and like not shrinking yourself. We’ll read a couple poems that we feel like share that same message. We’ll work our way into a couple short generative free writing sessions. And then we pick a couple oracle cards or tarot cards that fit that theme and I’ll kind of put together reflective questions based on the nature of those cards. And then we have a little sharing portion at the end where everyone has an opportunity to share something they wrote during the workshop or something from another time, a poem from someone else. Sometimes we have people that will do a song or share visual art that they’re working on. We really try to keep that open space for whoever wants to share, it doesn’t necessarily have to be poetry.
Right now it’s free. We are accepting donations and hoping to try and expand what we’re currently doing. Perhaps give the money to a member in the community who needs financial support or partner with other organizations that we’re interested in at the moment. Or just whoever needs funds. But at this stage we’re not quite there yet. Just two people running a little workshop.
M: Who are the attendees?
B: A lot of the attendees are people that have come from the previous youth non-profit that I used to teach at but we’ve also started getting more adults and more creative artistic people from all ages which is really cool. It is labeled as an all ages event, but we also want to keep it accessible for younger folks as well.
M: How did you first become really connected to astrology and astrology writing?
B: Well it’s been a long journey. I think my self-education process has probably taken a lot longer than it might have for other people and that’s just because I’m also a person who has to work a job alongside all of these creative pursuits and sometimes rest is more important. I think it was towards the end of 2019 where I had a pretty solid base layer of a lot of these things, but I really want to know more. Especially as a person who doesn’t subscribe to a theistic religion, having a place for spiritually is really important in a way that feels right for me. And that’s kind of what working with lunar and elemental energies felt like for me. It’s a spiritual practice where there’s a map that’s already laid out for me to understand myself and the strengths and challenges that I have. And the more that I get to know those characteristics within me, it’s radically transforming. I’m not a professional by any means, but I definitely have cultivated a lot of growth and a better understanding of my past and present.
M: Sometimes I think about poems like horoscopes–I’ll enjoy it because it relates to how I am feeling at the time, or I can morph it into something that works for me.
B: Yeah it’s definitely playing on our emotional selves and it really is speaking to how you’re feeling right then and there.
M: That poem of yours that I sent you when I was reading your chapbook, I don’t know why I felt so drawn to it at that moment, I think it was the line about how forgiveness is temporary. What does forgiveness mean to you?
B: I think the reason why I wrote that in that way–stone temporary and human, like forgiveness. I feel like forgiveness is at times really conditional. And going back to transcending or breaking through the barriers of what we’re taught, people want or expect you to be a person that can forgive. Or forgiveness is the attainable thing, like you must get to this point and once that’s reached, you’re able to move on. But that’s just not how it works. I can forgive you for treating me badly or harming me, but that doesn’t make it go away and if you do it again I can’t just keep leveling, can’t just keep walking up that staircase and getting to the top which is the forgiveness rung, you know? Here we are! Back down to zero. So yeah I think that’s just not a word I often really use, even when I’m having conflict or altercations with other people. It’s just not really the place that I’m trying to go. And I feel like I was taught a lot that that was where you were supposed to end up.
M: It rarely feels true.
B: Yeah it’s like, did you forgive me?
M: Where did the title of your chapbook come from?
B: I was really struggling with the title. I completed this chapbook through the certificate program at the IRPC, which is a year-long program that wraps up as a finished body of work in the form of a self-published book. And a lot was happening during my life at this time. I think that I was really all over the place, but part of the way that I came to this title was, we did an exercise toward the final stages of production where we actually had our manuscripts in a word document and it tells you how many times you used a certain word. And night was up there. I had used the word night so many times in the book and I have a real affinity for all things water, the element of water, the emotional. So it had a theme of night, these repeated nights. I spent a lot of nights writing this book. Most of it was written at night, in like dimly lit bars and wherever else. Just like here’s my nightwell, sort of drowning in this well of night.
M: Do you feel that your writing has changed since writing this book that was so heavy?
B: Yes, one hundred percent. I wrote this right before I entered into my Saturn return, closing out my twenties and I really just made space for all of the moments of grief that I felt over the last two decades. So yeah, I definitely have changed my writing a little bit. I’ve been reading more. I’ve been taking more classes, which also just really helps transform the way that you create if you’re around other people who are doing different things. I think I’m writing more from a place of gratitude now.
M: Do you view writing as a way of playing with time? Either making something last or bringing on the end of something.
B: Yeah and that’s a lot of what I do when I teach workshops–I’m coming from a place where this doesn’t need to be shared, this doesn’t need to be a product. This doesn’t need to be something that you use to market yourself to the world or this doesn’t need to commodify you. This is simply to usher you from this to that. How can we use these pieces of writing that we create as transitional objects in our lives?
M: What do you think are the most common poetic subjects? Love or death?
B: Love for sure. Death, yeah. I mean when we’re talking about what the youth are talking about it’s love and identity and unbalanced emotion. Anger. Rage.
M: What is it for you?
B: The things that I’ve sort of like centered my present work around, my life around… it’s all these little like reminders of fleetingness, like I think about that when I wake up and I’m like, getting a sip of water and I look over at the jar of peonies and I’m like, already? We just got you!
M: You’re already blooming and soon you’ll be gone.
B: You’re already this pale white color and you were bright magenta a day or two prior. I just think a lot about fleetingness lately. The last thing you’ll say to somebody or the last impression you make on someone.
M: Do you think that you know what you want your next collection to be themed around?
B: I have an open document in my Google Drive titled Permanence, and I don’t think that’s going to be like the title of said collection per se, but I know that following my poems in the last book with my dad’s death being a type of grief that I processed in that particular work, that I want to try and move forward and expand on other griefs. And permanence being like a really specific concept that I’m always exploring you know like, oh, permanence, impermanence, also being somebody who has like manically gotten so many tattoos.
M: I was just talking about this with someone.
B: I still do it. I’ve been doing it all year. That also plays into the grief of my work. This is like a new term that I’ve noticed in the wake of social media culture, but someone said this to me the other day, ‘Oh yeah I get it, you don’t want to be perceived.’ And I was like, that’s a new one. But yes, that’s exactly it. Or, I’m wanting to be perceived so intimately, that I’m not even sure how I’m perceiving myself. And so I actually have a pending poem that I’m working on where I’m talking about how I just started working as a floral delivery person and how I’m being perceived as a fully tattooed person. I don’t have any offensive tattoos but you know, people of certain age categories look at me like I may or may not slay them in their beds, you know what I mean?
M: What other griefs do you want to explore?
B: I think the impermanence of things is a really solid starting place. And then of course you know, the atrocities of the world that also are mundane in how frequent they occur, like that’s what causes them to be dismissed. Like moments of impermanence that get completely swallowed by people’s desensitization, of those atrocities. Like the death that’s occurring at the hands of the state is not new.
So that’s what I mean about impermanence. I guess I’d like to talk about my own grief and I don’t think that I’m ever going to be the type of writer that can, you know, speak to the catastrophes of the moment, at all times, but I do hope to harbor space for people that are seeking solace in something.
Something that I used to hear when I was a teenager in LA and I was just seeking out wherever there was some sort of an open mic or a reading–a call that the audience members would say to whoever was performing was, ‘get free poet.’ And that’s a little corny to me now. But as a young person that was so inspiring to me because that was what the writing felt like.
You’re writing the thing down to free yourself from it and then once you’ve done that, you can let it go.
M: Who are some of your other favorite writers or artists?
B: Right now I’m really quite undone by the work of C. A. Conrad who has a book of poems called While Standing in Line for Death. And also uses poetry in this visceral, beautiful way to really demonstrate fleetingness. They actually call their poems “shards” because they’re just short, really fragmented moments. Lucille Clifton is also someone that I really love reading. Ocean Vuong, Elissa Washuta. I’m also reading a lot of Japanese death poetry right now. People who know they’re gonna die are writing these haikus. It’s kind of like their last statement to the world and most of the time they’re not about the wrongs they’ve done or that were done to them. Most of the time they’re just little moments of the magic of being alive. The birds at twilight or the lily pads reflecting on the water.
M: How does your work with physical objects like your sculptures, your taxidermy, bleed, if at all, into your writing?
B: Well I’m a Cancer…obviously. And my Cancer sun is in the fourth house and the fourth house is very much about your home, your foundation. And with all the things that happened to me as a young person where I was really stripped away from any structure of home–I really had to find home in other ways. That’s why I always come back to, home is within you, home is nowhere else. And with the things that I’ve acquired in my space. My sculptures, my plants, my stones. All of that. The more that I feel I have around me, the more that I feel I’ve sort of healed that part of my younger self that really had to adapt to having nothing and really being without.
M: Being groundless.
B: Yeah, though I really try not to let material define me, I do feel like each time I create a space that physically has all of those things that make me feel comfortable and grounded, I feel like I’m giving back to that younger self that had to go without it. It’s a victory in some way.
M: I mean you obviously incorporate it into your workshops. Using objects as prompts.
B: Yeah I think the way that my brain works, I need to meditate with something that I first see or can touch or experience. And I think that finds a way into my work.
M: What are some of your goals for the future?
B: My goals for the future are to expand the workshop community that I’m cultivating. I’m not sure what that will look like but I want to keep pursuing that work and being in community with people that are also seeking. And I hope to put out a more accessible, published work that isn’t just a small moment of grief but is more expansive and could perhaps be more helpful to people besides myself. And yeah, just living a life with abundant love.
When I was in that place of psychic turmoil and deep emotional angst as a young person the writing was a way for me to create my own worlds, my own protective houses, my own map. Outside of writing for the purpose of being technically good, my hope is to inspire those places where you can simply come to know yourself and the way you want to exist in the world and create that home within that can’t be taken away from you. I use poetry and language as spells. I want to teach the youth that they have all that power in their own hands, regardless of the hell they have to walk through first.
M: What does your dream workshop community look like? Like if money or space was no object, what would it look like?
B: It would kind of replicate those early places where I felt the most whole and complete as a young person, but incorporating all of the things that I’m interested in now. A place where people can really experience that radical support and love that comes from coming together and using that vulnerability as a place of strength. So probably a platform, perhaps online where resources can be shared and there can be some sort of forum where people can communicate with each other and talk and bounce things off of one another or share recipes or prompts or other things that really bring about change and healing. A moment of reprieve from what is a really hard world to navigate living in for pretty much every human, I think.
M: Okay I saw this in a recent interview with Moses Sumney and Caroline Polachek, where she had him look at his last selfie and describe it poetically in the moment. Can you do the same? Doesn’t have to be a selfie, just a picture you took recently.
B: Well I did take a selfie before we began this interview.
M: Okay perfect!
B: /Iridescence/ a brilliant transparent/ glow captures/ time/ like a moon ring
that you wear forever/ un motioned past lives/ rise above you/ let it become/ invisible heat
Molly Gunther is a writer and editor from the Pacific Northwest, currently living in Chicago. Her work appears in Twenty Five-Rooms: Selections from the Hotel Archive, Hooligan Magazine, and elsewhere on the internet. Find her on Instagram @zimawarriorprincess.