Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and speak with Brian Sonia-Wallace, a St Andrews alum and published poet whose work has been featured in the New York Times and whose upcoming book, The Poetry of Strangers, is expected from Harper-Collins at the end of the month. Brian’s experience in public performance, his involvement with art advocacy in Los Angeles, and of course his time spent at St Andrews have cultivated a unique perspective which he has wielded to demystify poetry and make it accessible to the masses.
Lauren: So, you travelled all over the US for this book. Do you have a favorite place or moment that really inspired you?
Brian: In 2017, my work with RENT Poet led to a Writer’s Residency at Mall of America, for which I was selected out of 4,500 applicants. It was certainly a shameless corporate stunt on the part of the Mall, but it gave me a lot of great experience, especially in how you can exist as an artist within corporate spaces. There was one woman who approached me at my table there and told me how she had just returned from a weeklong silent meditation retreat, to which my question, of course, was “Well, what are you doing here now at the mall?” Her reply was that she had come to get Dippin’ Dots as her reward for successfully completing this retreat, which I just found so bizarrely funny. That, right there, is America for you: we are a searching, existential people, always trying to find a sense of self, and goddamnit, when we’re done, we’re gonna go get ice cream after.
Lauren: How do you feel your time at St Andrews has fit into or prepared you for your wider career? Do you find yourself drawing up your time there in your work?
Brian: I think at St Andrews, and in attending university outside of the US more generally, there is definitely a sense that students are more adult. For me, St Andrews created a context where I could realize my own agency and take initiative in a way I probably wouldn’t have been encouraged to at a US school. I think there’s also something to be said for getting to leave and reinvent yourself, and then coming back to the place you’re from as that new self with a new perspective. In that homecoming a third self emerges, and as a fresh graduate, that gave me a lot to reflect on what it means to return, a theme I often find myself returning to in my work.
Lauren: Do you have any words of wisdom for the St Andrews student community you were once a part of, especially aspiring poets, writers, and artists?
Brian: One thing I will say is don’t take the intellectual community around you for granted. You have at your fingertips an immediate potential for diversifying your thinking and an ability to enjoy the fact that you can talk to people who are investing all their time into exploring subjects like anthropology or medieval history or physics, giving you a chance to get a glimpse of all kinds of fields of human knowledge. In the adult world, you rarely will get to share such a curiosity with people your own age ever again, so I would say take advantage of that and absorb as much as you can while you still can.
To my fellow artists, I would say don’t wait to be discovered. St Andrews gives you the tools to go out and get what you want. For anyone trying to get published, my best advice would be to do something to get your name in the newspaper. After I was featured in the New York Times, I was suddenly receiving all kinds of opportunities, including my book deal, that never would have arisen had I not gotten my name out there. If you’re doing something worthwhile, people will listen; you just have to find a platform upon which to launch yourself.
Lauren: I know that in the description for your book it mentioned that one question you often ask people is “What do you need a poem about?” What do you think America and the world as a whole need a poem about right now?
Brian: Right now, we are all in fractured places with different identities and stories all related to the collective crisis of COVID-19. I think that right now every person needs a poem about something different. That’s what’s so tough about a universal trauma: not everyone is affected the same way and has the same needs. It’s messy and it’s complicated, but that’s why we need to try to understand and explore the complexities of individual situations. I am a big advocate for complexity in all things. I think especially in situations like these, it’s so much easier to generalize a whole global experience, but that takes away from so much of the individuality which makes us human and which makes poetry so human.