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Sadness and Sunbeams: Interview with Sojourner Kincaid Rolle

by Justine Sutton

Sojourner Kincaid Rolle may seem serious when you first meet her. And make no mistake, she is serious—about poetry, about education, about social justice. She does, in fact, sometimes refer to herself as The Sadness Poet. But in the next moment, the smile that creeps across her face lights her up like a sunbeam, and you know this is also a soul who enjoys nothing more than a good belly laugh.

Meeting with Sojourner on a drizzly early March afternoon at The Daily Grind was a delight as this scribe was treated to several of those dazzling sunbeams as well as wise words from this powerful woman who served as Santa Barbara’s Poet Laureate 2015-2017.

What are some different types of poetry you enjoy?

Ekphrastic poems (inspired by works of visual art): “I write in nature, using the landscape as my inspiration. Rather than looking at a painting of a landscape I’m looking at the real thing, so I’m eliminating the middleman, so to speak.”

Occasional poems (written for special occasions): “These are poems ‘On the occasion of…’ which are often looked down on, not considered ‘real' poetry. My grandmother was a great public speaker and always had the right poem for an occasion. In my poems, I’m trying to write something she would have chosen to read.”

Narrative Historical: “I like to tell stories. I am a serious narrative poet who documents historic occasions. Sometimes these are occasional poems. Way back in history, poetry was used to tell stories… this was its original usage.”

When and how did poetry first interest you?

“Poetry was always present at home…. my grandmother liked it so we always had books around the house. I loved Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the mid-60s I was inspired by Nikki Giovanni and other revolutionary poets. The first poems I wrote were around 1970—definitely on the subjects of Feminism and Black Power.”

What poets do you most enjoy reading now?

“Maya Angelou, William Stafford, and Langston Hughes still and always.”

What do you mean when you say you’re The Sadness Poet?

Each year for Poetry Month in April, I speak at Santa Barbara High School. When I shared poetry about recent violent incidents, a student asked me, ‘Do you only write sad poems?’ After this, I wrote The Sadness.”

(Opening lines:

It did not begin with Columbine

It will not end with Denver

Do you only write sad poems

A boy inquired

It is our task

What is there to say of gladness)

Right now I’m mostly writing sad poems, on school violence and other laments. I reflect on the purpose, the intent of my work… this is why I need to be writing about these things now. As an artist, an activist, a conscious person, my job is to write poetry that inspires others to think about such things.

Aside from just writing about the sad things, I write some that I hope will have a healing effect. When someone reads something that affirms their feelings, it can help them feel not so alone. I like to work against fear in my poetry. Take a problem, then once you work through it in a poem, it might end up differently than you’d think. I don’t expect to always be The Sadness Poet, because these things will pass too.”

What was most memorable for you about being Santa Barbara's Poet Laureate?

 “After I became Poet Laureate, I of course started getting invited to lots of different poetry gatherings. That’s when I learned the breadth of regard that Santa Barbara has for poets. It felt important to me that the community embraces poetry, and embraced me.

“For the Museum of Natural History’s Centennial in 2016, it felt wonderful to create a Poets in Residence program and be able to include other poets, including past Poet Laureates. An anthology was created out of that residency.”

How do you feel about humor in poetry?

“Humor is a part of my personality and, of course, comes out in my writing. So it is part of my poetry, but not intentionally—it’s just however the story comes out.”

What's the strangest thing anyone ever said to you at a reading or book signing?

<Laughs> “At a signing, someone said to me, 'Oh, did you write that?' I do my best to be gracious.”

If someone is interested in delving into poetry who hasn't read it before, what poets do you recommend they start with?

 <Another sunbeam smile> “Me.”

Sojourner's poetry can be found in Volume 4 of the Santa Barbara Literary journal, available on Amazon.

Justine Sutton graduated from UCSB and has adopted Santa Barbara as her hometown, having lived here longer than anywhere else. Starting with an editorial internship at the SB Independent, she has worked with words in a variety of capacities over the years, including English teaching, arts journalism, grant-writing, non-profit development/marketing, fiction, poetry, and memoir. Justine is a great supporter of SB LitJo, serving as our Mistress of Merch.

Sojourner's poetry can be found in Volume 4 of the Santa Barbara Literary journal.

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