I never noticed the difference
between naked and exposed
until your sweater was puddled on my floor
and your shoulders remained covered
in kaleidoscopic swirls of ink. A tattooed
cartography of memories and myths.
Sleeves I could never remove.
— Shawnte Orion
Shawnte Orion takes poetry to the streets, bars, laundromats and more. His work has been published in numerous literary journals, including Crab Creek Review, Barrelhouse and New York Quarterly. He lives in Surprise, Arizona, and has been named one of 100 Phoenix Creatives.
In his debut poetry collection, The Existentialist Cookbook, Orion sifts through the absurdity of modern life for scraps of philosophy, religion, and mathematics to blend into recipes for elegies and celebrations.
You often perform your work in non-traditional settings: bars, hair salons, museums, laundromats, and street corners. Why?
I don’t want poetry to be confined or limited to the niche demographic of People Who Like Poetry. I’m no professor. I didn’t come out of a University writing program. I’m a “regular” person with a normal job, so I believe poetry can be relevant and appreciated in anyone’s world. I love occasions when I get to read to people who aren’t usually exposed to poetry. Whether they left the house for the sole purpose of doing their laundry or seeing a punk band, I like the challenge and reward of trying to hold their attention and maybe even win them over.
The Existentialist Cookbook, your first full-length book, offers a great blend of sharp and smart poems mixed with wonderfully tender and touching pieces. Was this range intentional?
Yes. I experience the world through an array of emotions and moods and I want my poetry to reflect that spectrum. Times when I am withdrawn and pensive are as integral to my process as moments of hilarity. This might have worked against me with certain presses who prefer a more unified “voice” but fortunately Raymond Hammond and NYQBooks appreciated my amalgamated poetics. I don’t necessarily want this collection to contradict itself, but it should contain multitudes.
Your poems are quick-witted, full of clever word play and pop culture references, and peppered with such engaging titles as, "Love in the Time of Hand-Sanitizer" and "Unable to Surface for Air During Shark Week." Who (or what) has influenced your writing?
Before I started getting into poetry, the songwriters and filmmakers I was obsessed with in my youth left an imprint on the way I approach poems (Soundgarden and Frank Black music- Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman films, for example). Back in middle school, I also paid a lot of attention to what stand up comics could accomplish on a stage with nothing but words and perspective. It wasn’t until I took a workshop with Denise Duhamel that I began to realize how much crossover there was between the poet and stand up comic worlds. She pointed out that Denis Leary started out as a poet (even published in Ploughshares). I looked up one of the comedians I remember most (John Wing) and found that he published a few poetry books. Influences are a small world after all.
Your book bio says you “attended community college for one day” but that your poems have appeared in many respected literary journals. How did you come to poetry, and how did you “learn” to write?
My French teacher in 7th, 8th and 12th grade, Elaine Phelps, had our class work with poetry to understand the language. Translating and discussing the poems of Jacques Prevert showed me how efficiently ideas and experiences could be conveyed through a handful of lines. Once I started reading lots of contemporary poetry, it wasn’t always the brilliant stuff that taught me the most. Often times, it was noticing where and how certain poems fell apart that “taught“ me what I wanted to avoid.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?
Continually revisit the poems you thought were finished weeks, months, even years ago. A little bit of distance can create a lot of clarity.
Bonus Question: I’m a word collector and keep a running list of favorite words. What are your favorite words?
I also try to keep lists, so here are a few of my most recent additions: