“I didn’t get here by myself!” Camara Brown half yells and half laughs. “I’m not here by myself,” she affirms. Camara is a poet, an Excelano. She’s juggling multiple graduate school acceptances. She's undeniably impressive, but still humble, aware of how she’s arrived where she is and who’s helped her get here.
And her poetic journey has been a long one. “The first poem I remember writing was in middle school—it was an assignment for a preposition poem,” she recalls. It’s a difficult task to make a seventh grader care about poetry, about the alignment of words on a page and their resonances and sounds and the narratives they can form. “And I remember everyone hating it, and I was like, ‘This is so much fun,’” she says. She continued writing and eventually went on to join her high school’s poetry club, through which she would go on to attend Louder Than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry slam in the world. “We wrote our own poems—two to three minute poems about our lives—and we notoriously got second place every time,” she says. She exalts the excitement of performing, of having an audience listen to something personal to oneself.
“I got hooked there—I got hooked on the community, I got hooked on the friends I made from sharing, reading, editing, working through poems with people,” she says.
Whether or not to become involved with poetry at Penn was never a question for Camara, who performed at the Kelly Writers House Speakeasy during NSO her freshman year. For all four years at Penn, she has been a general member of the Excelano Project, the only spoken word group on campus. She notes, a little sardonically, how centrally the culture at Penn values leadership and executive roles in extracurricular organizations. Excelano, according to Camara, is different. Though there is a president and director, because the group is so small “everyone takes on something,” she notes, “and we all just care a lot about it, about the family, about the work, about the poems, about the show.”
Camara recalls how when she first began performing with Excelano she would have incredulous friends come up and ask her if the stories she told through her poems were true. They were and still are (albeit with some natural exaggerations); her poetry is fundamentally about herself and her experiences. She cites among her inspirations her family, people around her, other Excelano poets, other poets on campus more generally and the poets Tracie Morris and Terrance Hayes.
“I think a lot of my inspiration comes from my academic work,” she muses. She’s an Urban Studies major in the College, but sees herself as “a mixture of an Africana Studies major and a History major and an English major and Political Science major.” She sums up her academic work: “Poetry, African American poetry, critical theory, race theory, black feminist critique, less so queer theory because I’m just learning that stuff, and policy and politics and body politics and the relationship between marginalized people and the state.”
Her studies have come to revolve around memorials and memorialization—around questions of public memory with a focus on memorials of African–American history. Her studies are very much cross–disciplinary, and she cites a class she took last semester, “Black Feminist Approaches to History and Memory” taught by Grace Sanders Johnson: “My final paper was on a poem that I was introduced to by a PoemTalk at the Kelly Writers House called ‘Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful’ by Tracie Morris.” In the essay, she argues that the poem functions as a place of history and memory that “we should look at as an archive.” Memory, Camara believes, “runs through us all the time.”
This fact is what interests her so much and what has led her to seek a career in academia. She is currently supported by the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which seeks to help students of color who want to go into academia. She says that professors at Penn have fundamentally changed the way she understands the world and that she wants to be a part of that legacy. “I want to be a professor,” she asserts, “Teach. Write. Learn. Change things. Those are all really important to me.”
Her academic interests all come together in her writing. She reflects, “I think my most political acts have been through my poetry.” What, then, goes into Camara’s poetic process? In deciding what to write about, she says “mostly, it’s what’s jarring in your life. It’s something that you have to write about, something that feels urgent.” She focuses on the Excelano Project’s last show: “Faultlines.” The show was only a week and a half after the election, and though everyone had already prepared poems to perform, there was the sudden need to reconsider the group’s trajectory.
Camara was inspired by the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, which one of her professors read in class following the election. She was stuck on the line, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave,” in Angelou’s poem, and worked tirelessly from there to produce her own piece—a piece she ultimately was conflicted about performing due to its emotionally–charged nature. “I think my poem tried to get at, and many of the poems in the show tried to get at, the anxiety of trying to move forward in a time that feels like it’s backwards, and the necessity of it all. And the legacy of doing that always.”
She laments that poetry is often assumed to belong to one of two categories: spoken word and “page” poetry. She stresses the fluidity of poetics, the importance of feeling an image or idea and trying to think of how to best express it.
“And some ideas are most effectively heard through the page,” she says, “through the spatiality of it. And I think for Excelano, we perform our poems. I’m thinking about how it’s going to be performed all the time while I’m writing it.” She stresses the need to move around often when she writes, how she’s needed to move from a café to her home so that she could do so.
She wants her poetry to “destabilize assumptions, maybe about language, maybe about identity, maybe about how we view our relationships with one another, and what gaze we look at them through.” She hopes that her poetry is able to voice ideas and struggles and feelings that other people have experienced and that there can be at least a “touch of resonance,” that it might leave “some people uneasy and uncomfortable. In a good way. In a productive way.”
I must admit that it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached the summer. True, I had landed an internship abroad in the same country as my boyfriend, my living arrangements were simple, my travel plans booked.