Elisa Chavez’s poem “Revenge” was published on her Tumblr and then was republished by Seattle author Lesley Hazleton. We read the poem on Hazleton’s blog and got permission from both Chavez and Hazleton to publish it on the Seattle Review of Books, and we made Chavez our very first Poet in Residence for the month of January. Then, the poem went absolutely nuts: this month, many tens of thousands of people have come to the Seattle Review of Books to read and share “Revenge” with their social networks. “Revenge” marks the second poem of Chavez’s to go viral; an earlier poem about Gamergate attracted the attention of dozens of internet trolls. We sat down with Chavez to discuss slam poetry, being a viral poet, and why art is more relevant now than ever.
How long have you been writing poetry?
My mom would have the most accurate count. I think I was 3 or 4 when I started writing. I'm 28 now.
And how long have you been performing your poetry?
I was briefly involved in slam when I was a teenager in Austin, Texas for like two seconds, but then I didn't really do it in a meaningful way until I moved to Seattle in 2013.
In your relatively short career, you've had two poems go viral. The first experience was maybe not so pleasant, and the second one was maybe hopefully a little moreso. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the difference between those two experiences going viral and what it’s been like for you.
For a while my friends would send me links to stuff that they thought would make me angry. They'd be like, "I can't wait to see what you write about this." One of the emails was a link to a Vulture article about Gamergate, which was the thing where a bunch of guys got super-angry at women for having opinions about video games.
There were 900 comments on the article. I read all 900 comments, and then I wrote a poem. The structure of it was based on all of the things I kinda wanted to yell at people in the comments. The way the poem sorta became a thing is, I performed it at WOWPS, which is Women of the World Poetry Slam, in 2015. I didn't have a name for the poem — a lot of times in spoken word you don't have to name anything.
The actual title was the first three lines or something. I just called it "#Gamergate."
It turns out that the Gamergate crowd has Google Alerts set for that term, and they found me. Right about the same time that my friends were like, "Elisa, you're on Button Poetry, that's so nice," I started seeing all these comments coming in.
At first I thought "Oh, this is kinda funny.” It was several dozen, and then it became a hundred, and then three hundred, and it was really terrible. They were just very mean and angry. People don't understand how upsetting it is when somebody breaks the social contract and says horrible things. It was just so many people. They would sort of go back and forth with each other, and play a game of oneupsmanship about who could say the worst things about me. I have not been back to that comments section in almost two years now.
That was that experience. It fortunately mostly remained in the realm of the online, although I did have a show that I was doing in Vancouver, and one of them found the event and posted to let me know that they knew where I would be.
Wow, I'm sorry.
People made all these takedown videos of me, which I haven't watched. Some of them were women. And that was really kinda sad, because they're young girls. I remember when I was in college, there was a time when nothing felt as validating as a guy’s affirmation. That part was a little sad.
With “Revenge,” I think the biggest difference — aside from that people aren't yelling that I'm a resentful whore or whatever — the main difference is I think that people are really engaging with the actual substance of what I wrote. They’re tagging their friends in it. I see people going like, "Oh, so-and-so this reminded me of you," or "So-and-so, I know you would love this.” That has made me very happy.
Somebody messaged me on Tumblr, and they said that they had been really, really depressed ever since the election. All their friends were getting up out of bed because they felt inspired to fight and this person couldn't find it. Then they read this poem, and they felt like that gave them what they needed. I cried when I read that, then I told my mom. That's a huge difference. It's not that people haven't been negative, but you gotta really wake up pretty early in the morning to be as negative as Gamergate.
I know you've written about that, and I remember that's why I liked your essay so much, the way you linked Gamergate to the alt-right Neo-Nazis. Or Neo-Neo-Nazis, whatever.
Yeah! Yeah, and seeing all that stuff again come up in this election is like, "ah, hello darkness, my old friend!"
In a way both poems are kind of about the same thing. Does it bother you that the two poems you've had that have taken off on the internet are both in relationship to shitty men?
No. Well, at this point, no. If you had asked me last year, I might have said yes. I write poems about so many things — like terrible horror movies and velociraptors, and all these things. You know, there's also some stuff about men. The thing I felt like I needed to respond to was, "oh, she hates men."
It was like, "No, I don't like you. I'm fine with men." I talk about my dad, and my brother as positive male relationships in my life. I think there are some poets whose body of work is a lot more like chronicles of terrible men. Which is great! I just don't necessarily have that many actually terrible men in my own life that I feel compelled to write about.
At first when it was the only thing that I was known for, I have to say it did feel bad when people were like, "Hey Gamergate, you wanna come perform at our venue?" I'm like [suspicious voice,] "yeah, thanks?”
Some Gamergaters said, "She's just riding that poetry gravy train by capitalizing on our fame!" I think I made 75 whole dollars off of that poem.
What are you working on now?
Trying to convince myself that I haven't peaked at 28? That's what I'm really working on, and it’s an emotional journey. I'm writing a bunch of Donald Trump/election related stuff right now. I'm giving myself permission to do that and not worry about the repetitiousness of it, because I got to take a really, really great workshop with Mahogany Browne a couple years ago. I remember the one little snippet of conversation I had with her. At that time I was writing a lot of angry feminist stuff and I felt like I couldn't stop being angry, and I was upset that I couldn't stop being angry. She said, "Just write what moves you until you don't have to anymore."
That's been really, really helpful. I gotta believe youth had something to do with this. You feel like, "Oh, I've been doing this for a year, it's forever, this is my life," and then it goes away and something else happens.
So that's what I'm doing, since I kind of have that permission I'm just trying to have fun with it. I wrote a poem about Donald Trump’s tiny fingers, and every line was shorter than the last. It's just fun. My mom told me that she wanted me to write a poem about Kellyanne Conway and dedicate it to her, and I did that. If you just watch any of these people for any amount of time, you just get so angry.
I hate asking this question but when I interview slam poets, I always have to bring up the disassociation between slam poetry and written poetry.
You are a slam poet, but you were eager to have your poetry written. Is there a divergence between slam poets and written poets, or is it changing, or is it not, or what?
I'm gonna speak only for myself, and I want that to be known so all my slam poet friends don't think I'm selling them out or saying bad things about them or whatever. I do feel limitations within myself that are craft-based. Like: line breaks. What are they? Why? That keeps me up at night. I don't have much, sort of, awareness about a lot of this technical language around form.
At the same time, I love a couple things about slam poetry. Since it's a competitive atmosphere, and you don't want to bore people by doing the same thing every single week, it really keeps me writing. Since you want to write something that will appeal to people more than the stuff your friends are writing, it can really help you bring your A game.
There are some pitfalls, which is that sometimes you perform things that a crowd wants to hear. Sometimes things that the crowd wants to hear are not really particularly artistic or a good idea.
When I started competing, my well-meaning friends would try to help me do better in slams. They would be like, "You have to read this one," and I would say, "Oh I don't wanna read that tonight, I feel like doing something different." And they'd say, "Well do you wanna win?" I'd be like, "I do what I want!" And I did, and I didn't win for a year when I first started, 'cause I wouldn't do that.
I think slam is really accessible. One of my friends had a line in a poem, I remember the first time he read it. Oh God, I'm going to misquote it. It was: “The ninety seconds it took to go from one in a million, to one of them, to one of the good ones, is a uniquely American way to feel whiplash.” When he read it, people screamed. I screamed. It's hard to find a place where somebody's words will do that to a room full of people. That's a special quality to me.
Do you differentiate? Do you ever write something and say "This is a prose poem," or, "This is only spoken."
When I do have ideas for line breaks or for arrangement on a page, then I kinda want people to read it instead of hear it. There's some stuff that people tell me they like, and I hate it on a writing level, and I can't imagine that if it were put down on paper anybody would like it.
A lot of times, my metric is, I really really try to write something that will work on the page — as in, the writing is strong enough that it could stand on its own, but also it would be engaging to perform.
Are you interested in publishing a collection? Are you interested in staying on the slam beat, or both? Are you just seeing what happens?
I think both. I just started working on the board of Rain City Slam, it's a volunteer position. I think that what I'm excited about is trying to do more outreach, and get more people involved — at the very least getting involved in self-expression, and dipping your toes in the arts. Partially I'm trying to work up the guts to submit stuff. I'm trying to put more of my stuff out there.
Are there any poets in town who you like a lot who you think deserve more attention?
I would say Jane Wong, except she just put Overpour out, and people love it and it's apparently doing really well, which is great. Johnny Horton, I love. EJ Koh and Michelle Peñaloza have done really cool stuff.
You've been writing since you were tiny. What is it about poetry that does it for you? Why poetry and not prose? What is the calling?
I like prose too. I've written a novel. I wrote some political commentary this past fall, which was super-cool. But I like poetry because I think when it's really really good, you just get the most emotion per word. The best bang for your buck. It feels like a condensed, high-octane literary experience.
That is awesome. That is an awesome answer.
If people want to read more of you, where should they go?
How often are you reading at Rain City?
Most weeks. Most Wednesdays. At least twice a month.
Is there anything else that you were thinking about?
The thing I've been telling everybody to do is, I just want to see so much art about Trump. Trump hates art, he hates comedians. His particular brand of communication is like this id-driven word salad. I think that that means that he can't speak the language of comedy or of art. And so I really really want people to write poems about him, and stories, and shove 'em in his face because I think that it would infuriate him.
That's it, that's my dream for America.