In October, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with spoken word artist, S. Bryan Medina in Fresno, California, where we both live. Although I’m primarily drawn to Bryan’s work for its unbridled energy, unkillable humanity, and fierce social consciousness, I also love that he is pretty much the antithesis of the stereotypically aloof writer. Whether he’s performing in a dive-bar or a crowded lecture hall on a major college campus, he is who he is: a fierce but imminently approachable, kind-hearted artist whose wisdom is matched only by the generosity of his spirit. He also cooks a mean tri-tip.
Current Fresno Poet Laureate, S. Bryan Medina, studied under former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, and his poetry has graced stages in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Kansas City. He founded the Inner Ear as a way to free poetry from the confines of academic institutions making it accessible to all. Medina, a long-time art activist, has been awarded two City of Fresno Commendations, including the 2014 Fresno Arts Council Horizon Award, for contributions to the rich artistic and cultural heritage in Fresno, California and has been featured as one of the four “Fresno Poets” from writer Nick Belardes’s Distinguished Valley Writers series. He is the author of More than Soil, Less than Sand and his work has appeared in journals such as Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, In the Grove, San Joaquin Review, Jubilee, and Invisible Memoirs among others. Medina is a Desert Storm/Gulf War veteran and a graduate of Fresno Pacific University.
Check out a couple of Bryan’s performances. My interview with him follows.
Michael Meyerhofer: What first got you into writing? Can you talk a little bit about what writing has done for you, how it helps or sustains you?
S. Bryan Medina: I first got into writing by journaling at age 12; talking about my day to day activities at first. Then I started to write short stories involving monsters and the such. But just as I was starting, Hip-hop and Rap were coming into the scene. That was a game changer for me. They taught me that I could write “real world” stories of what was going on around me. And although I love and still listen to Rap and Hip-Hop, I felt (even back then) that their rhyme schemes felt limiting for what I wanted to achieve and how I wanted to express myself. I found poetry during my junior year in high school by way of my English teacher, Mr. Todd.
In my own experience over the years, writing has meant, and continues to mean, different things at different times. At first a literal life saver back in the days when I used to run with the gangs. I used it as an escape to my often violent and dangerous youth. In high school, writing took on the form of expression and the means in which I could get across my points. During my years serving in the Navy, it made me extra side money — writing love letters for shipmates to send back home to girlfriends, families, and or friends. In my later 20’s and early 30’s, while raising my younger siblings, it served as a much-needed break/respite from all the responsibilities. Writing also has been a tool and outlet for my artist expression by leading me to create both the Inner Ear open mic show and later the Beat Down Slam monthly event, which is still going strong after 17 years in the community. In my mid-life, writing taught me perseverance via the hard lesson of rejection letters from publishers, the importance of revision, and use of craft. And now, looking at 50 in a few months, writing has brought the lens of meditation and reflection: how can and do writers interact with their surrounding communities to bring change through craft?
MM: It seems like a lot of us writers tend to isolate ourselves for whatever reason. You, on the other hand, are widely known and respected for being very involved in the community. What are your thoughts on this kind of literary citizenship, and what advice would you have for other writers who are trying to break out of their shell?
SBM: I learned very early in my career that if I wanted to remain relevant and get my work out, I had to be willing to actually go out and do things: go to other readings and art happenings, put on my own events, give back to what this community has given me and be willing to share any knowledge I’ve accumulated to others coming up. Coming from a slam/performance background, it was easy for me, but I understand the hesitancy of others. I would suggest that all writers take any and all opportunities to read their works in public. There is nothing more frustrating than listening to brilliant words read by a hesitant voice.
MM: Many writers debate the difference between spoken word and poetry on the page. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the similarities between the two.
SBM: This is a great question! I’ve encountered many at the academic level that want to diminish Spoken Word/Performance Writing and its place in creative writing. I’ve encountered many Spoken Word poets who don’t appreciate the Page poet. Why do that? Instead of focusing on our differences, we should be embracing them, and honoring our similarities.
At the end of the day, I believe that both are trying to get at the same place: We have a message, a narrative, a lesson that we are compelled to share. We share it through poetic devices, form and structure, imagery, diction, and strive to be aesthetically pleasing.
MM: Going off the previous question, what can someone who is primarily interested in spoken word gain from reading poetry on the page? What can poets who primarily work on the page gain by being more familiar with spoken word?
SBM: By reading great page works, the performance writer becomes exposed to a variety of tools that can be used to create long-lasting works that people will remember and continue to talk about long after their performance. They can learn what it takes to get published (if that is their intention). Conversely, by becoming more familiar with Spoken word, Page poets will learn how to engage audiences and form intersections between what the writers knows to be true, and the life experiences of others, in a style that will touch the readers of their works in more dynamic ways, as well as to gain an authentic writing voice.
MM: What would you most like people to understand about your work?
SBM: That my poems serve as a narrative about not only my life, but my observations on the world around us. The human condition.
MM: What are some things you’re interested in, besides writing and performance?
SBM: I’m a big nerd at heart, so I am a pop culture fan. I am that guy who loves pop culture collectibles from tv shows, movies, games, music, and more. I am also a long-time comic book collector, who has over 7,000 books roughly worth the cost of a new truck. In the last three years I’ve become something of a Paper Mache artist or, as I like to call myself, “a Paper Mache Folklorist” who creates large scale mythic monsters, as well as iconic pop-culture imagery. People can currently see two of my pieces at this year’s Fresno Fair.
MM: What projects are you working on now?
SBM: Presently, I’m working on bringing to life an outdoor reading that will be called “Fresno Poet Laureate Bryan Medina: Live at Cultural Arts District Park.” This November 1st event will feature working Central California Valley poets, including student writers from both Junior high and local area high schools, along with live music, DJ, and food trucks. Additionally, I’m preparing for another season of coordinating Fresno’s leg of the national student poetry recitation contest, Poetry Out Loud, starting later in October. Oh – and in my spare time… I’m submitting more work to publishers.