Full transcription:

Welcome to another episode of the Creative Power Hour, I’m your host Marcus Whitney and today’s guest is the celestial creative Caroline Randall Williams. 

Marcus: How are you? 

Caroline: I’m wonderful. Celestial, I love that! 

Marcus: Yeah, that's how I think of you. Hmm Hmm, that’s how I think of you. I’m so excited. So I haven’t shot a show in a minute, I have been doing public speaking and we booked this probably it feels like 2 months ago. And like, ya know, finally.

Caroline: It’s been incubating for a long time. 

Marcus: Yes, yes. I woke up this morning and I was like today is the day! So can we jump into your origin story cause I don’t even think I really know, and I know you and I know your family but I don’t really know how you would…  

Caroline: How I would tell it? 

Marcus: Yeah! How would you tell it? 

Caroline: So my origin story probably starts, I mean, obviously it starts before me. 

Marcus: Yeah, right.

Caroline: But I think when I think about my origin story, even to me and my own narrative, it starts with people who I think about my great-grandfather Arnabantan who was a Harlem renaissance poet and he was the head librarian at Fisk and also their writer and resident for a long time. And he and his best friend was Langston Hughes and now he died before I was born but his wife, Alberta lived until I was almost 17 years old. And, just right over here in North Nashville and was a real important part of my life. And my grandmother, Joan whose daughter lived until I was I think 11 and also a really important part of my life and so the idea of writing and sort of rocking deep in the waters of the intersection between food and literature, these librarians who cooked and were strong black creative people here in Nashville, I feel like that’s very much a part of my emotional and practical inheritance. 

Marcus: Yeah. 

Caroline: And really shaped who I planned to be as I was coming to be a human being. (um) So I would say that’s the sort of beginning of my origin story thinking about Arnabantan, the legacy of that family. And then on my moms side, obviously my mother, is a writer, that’s like her bread and butter it's her whole (uh) and she’s mulit-genre which I think has led me to feel access to just like leaping into different mediums whether it be the article writing, or the cookbook or poetry or getting on stage even with the poems. And, her dad George, the idea of him looms very large for me as part of my origin story. My grandfather George was born in Selma, Alabama and he was the grandson of Edmond Pettus the confederate general. 

Marcus: Wow! 

Caroline: We don’t have concrete evidence of that except that the Pettus’ many of them show up as my cousins on Ancestry DNA so that a thing. 

Marcus: Wow! 

Caroline: (Um, and…) They moved to Detroit, ya know, great migration stuff and my grandfather was just this badass who ran dry cleaners but who knows what else he was doing. 

Marcus: Uh, huh. And back then, people had a side gig.

Caroline: And he ran around with Barry Gordy and Barry Gordy’s sister and like, you know, my mom was five years old when the Supreme’s first played the Copa Cabana and she was there with my grandpa and my grandmother and all these things and (um) so I think about that sort of… ya know… that side of blackness. 

Marcus: Yeah, yeah. 

Caroline: The funk, the Motown, the swing the like silk jacket. And like, maybe the pistol on the car seat next to you, kind of thing. 

Marcus: Right, right. Yes, yes. 

Caroline: I have this sense of George, the sense of Arna the sense of Alice, the sense of Alberta. That’s my great-grandmother. 

Marcus: Okay, okay. 

Caroline: There, you know when I think about my personal infrastructure, that’s what comes to mind first as an origin story.

Marcus: That’s an unbelievable personal infrastructure. 

Caroline: Yeah. {laughs}

Marcus: Most people, can’t do that. 

Caroline: I know.

Marcus: Most people can’t go back and find themselves as you were saying that, your picture got a lot clearer for me because I think people who didn’t know that would look at you and be like - and also your mother by the way, right? Because, you both are still (uh) she’s in the game right? Ya know what I mean? 

Caroline: Yes, she is in the game. 

Marcus: She’s in the game. And you both, are two things. 1. Incredibly prolific and 2. Really high energy. Like all the time. Right, it’s like when do you all run out of energy?

Caroline: She’s even better than I am about that.

Marcus: Y’all are both incredible and just hearing that, makes me feel like there is definitely - what did you call it? Something inheritance? What did you call that? 

Caroline: (Um) An emotional and practical inheritance.

Marcus: YES! Wow! Because I don’t just want to say, it’s genetic. 

Caroline: Right

Marcus: It’s more than that, right? There’s gotta be narrative there and just being around things when you were growing up that just all… 

Caroline: No, I think that’s exactly right. And you think about one of the things that I think so much about um… and you know, hell hath frozen over, but one of the useful things about um the current holder of the highest office in the land 

Marcus: hmm hmm

Caroline: And the way that his ya know that his family functions. 

Marcus: hmm hmm 

Caroline: Is, it’s caused me to think a lot about inheritance and about legacy and about what wealth is and what passing things on means. (Um) And, ya know, black wealth can look like money and can look like traditional white wealth but it can also look like these things that I have, these stories that I have. I feel very wealthy. 

Marcus: Yeah. 

Caroline: because I have these narratives. And so to me when I say inheritance, I use that word very intentionally because I think of it as you come into your inheritance, you come into the things that allow you to to have capital in this world. 

Marcus: Hmm, hmmm

Caroline: and to me, those things allow me to have capital in this world, those things are capital. Like,  those stories, those memories. That kind of thing. 

Marcus: That’s huge. 

Caroline: Yeah. 

Marcus: Yeah, I won’t even tell you how much that just tapped into where I am in my life right now my son’s are 20 and 18. 

Caroline: I saw a college graduation picture. Or a high school graduation, sorry. 

Marcus: Yeah, Yeah, so my youngest

Caroline: Congratulations 

Marcus: Thank you, yeah, thank you. My youngest is getting ready to go to college and um I’m so much thinking about that legacy and that inheritance right? And that capital and to be honest, they are both so capable. I am not thinking about the monetary capital legacy, right inheritance for them. 

Caroline: Yeah 

Marcus: I’m thinking about what example 

Caroline: Yeah 

Marcus: And what emotional and practical inheritance am I leaving them. 

Caroline: Yeah 

Marcus: And um, and I am thinking a lot about

Caroline: And here we sit 

Marcus: And thinking a lot about the one my parents gave to me

Caroline: Yeah

Marcus: You know, I mean I just went to uh an event and did a public speaking thing and I pretty much bring my parents with me into all of these stories now 

Caroline: Right

Marcus: Because, it’s like, people just need to understand so much of who I am, we are, you have nothing to do with, right?  You know what I’m saying? 

Caroline: Truly, truly

Marcus: The whole part of everything you are doing, yes. You are responsible for your hard work and all that stuff. Look, you know what I mean? And if you are fortunate enough, you got a lot 

Caroline: That’s right

Marcus: Okay, is there more because we could spend a lot of time talking about 

Caroline: More of the origin story? 

Marcus: Yeah, is there more? 

Caroline: Umm

Marcus: That was a lot but there might be more

Caroline: I guess I could give, I can condense the rest? Cause that’s the foundation and then

Marcus: Okay

Caroline: I think that the rest to me ya know, all of these things provide really meaningful context but then ya know,  all that came together for Alice Randall and Avon Williams to have a child in 1987 here in the city and um.. Ya know, from, all of my quirky, weird creative activities that my mom did when I was a little girl and then putting me through, ya know watching her fight as a single mother to put me through university school to like, keep on making really important art and I grew up in a house where ya know, my mother, this brilliant black woman was the sole breadwinner and she did a good job at it. 

Marcus: Yeah

Caroline: She also did a really good job at making me feel very seen and heard and invited into my own imagination. (um) And, ya know, she always, from the cookbook to the poems she was always like, mixing media, mixing genres. She would say, she’d like, read me an Emily Dickinson poem and then she’d say, okay, let’s go to the art store. You’re going to pick out stuff that’s going to let you turn that poem into a piece of art. Right? 

Marcus: That’s amazing! 

Caroline: Or she’d say, we’re reading a book, let’s figure out what they would’ve eaten in the book and have that for dinner. Right? So to me I was always engaging with words together with other things. Whether they be visual or um like tactile or edible. And so, to me, I think that’s like, that’s why my writing takes such weird forms and shape and things like that. So I think that where I’ll leave the origin story. I think that’s where it stops. 

Marcus: That made…. Wow! That just really. Man, wow! Wow! 

Caroline: Alice is cool!  She’s, I’m like, write a book mom! Write a book about the (not clear on what she said here- 10:40

Marcus: I mean, I met you and you and your mom. It was at least, close to the time where you had released um… 

Caroline: Soul Food Love 

Marcus: Yeah, Soul Food Love and ya know when you meet people, this happens to me quite often. You meet people, you meet them in a certain context and you file them away in that context 

Caroline: Right

Marcus: In that context, you know what I mean? Oh! Caroline and Alice, they have that book it’s about soul food. They are a great mother daughter combo and they are into helping the world and you know, sharing our people’s heritage but also their families heritage through this food and that’s really cool. And, then every time I would see you, it wouldn’t fit. It would not fit that. Right, you know what I mean? 

Caroline: {laughing} 

Marcus: Every next time I would see you it would be something completely different and then, I think what really took it over the top was when I went to opening night For Lucy. 

Caroline: Oh, For Lucy? I love it. 

Marcus: For Lucy. Um, so I haven’t gotten a chance to tell you this in person, I sent you like IG messages but I knew you were getting a bunch of them so I was like, I’ll just add to the chorus so a) that was one of the best shows that i’ve seen in my entire life. 

Caroline: Thank you so much! 

Marcus: And, b) I can’t believe I know someone who created it. 

Caroline: Ah! That's going to make me cry! 

Marcus: And, c) and I can’t believe I know someone who created it and then performed it and, d.) who then on a stage with many many many really talented people was for me the best person on the stage. Kinda crazy. 

Caroline: Oh my gosh! Thank you! 

Marcus: So, I mean, it honestly, (uh). I don’t know. It just put things in perspective for me around mastery. 

Caroline: Yeah! Oh my gosh! 

Marcus: You, that night for me, you had obviously done the work prior to that. You know, people will say things like “you’re a natural”. No, you’re a master. Right? You know what I mean? You’ve done the work.

Caroline: Yeah

Marcus: You’ve put in the work to be able to execute something at that level and it’s not just your memorization and the quality of your writing. That was incredible collaboration, there is a lot of business work that had to go in there. 

Caroline: Yeah, that’s right. 

Marcus: There is a lot of narrative work that’s not the narrative work your telling the audience. The narrative you are telling everybody that’s working on this the thing. The people who are raising funds for it, you know what I mean? 

Caroline: Yeah, you know these things.

Marcus: I do know these things, I do know these things and I am looking at this and I’m saying - you’ve gotta be kidding me. This is something (uh). And look, I worked on bringing a pro team to Nashville so like I understand big things. But you know, there’s different levels. There’s different levels and would say, what you did with Lucy, was another level and I don’t know many people who are on that level. I really don’t. I don’t know many people who are on that level. 

Caroline: Oh my gosh! {laughs}

Marcus: I mean it. And I think most people who are like in our circles would have to agree, right? I just, we know people that have written books, we know people who have done things. Created great companies and that was a different level. So, now that I’ve finally gotten to tell you that, (uh) what do you want to tell me or anyone who is watching this or listening to this about Lucy. Like, who is Lucy? 

Caroline: Ooh! Okay. So…. (long pause) 

Marcus: And if that’s not even the right question. That’s okay too. 

Caroline: No, it is, it is. I am processing all of the things that you said because it’s very (uh). Ya know the show has been celebrated and I think privately, ya know it’s funny. After opening night I sat down Paul Vasterling who’s the choreographer but he’s so much more than that. 

Marcus: He heads the ballet, right? 

Caroline: Yeah, so he’s the creative director of the ballet he is and does all the fundraising and he’s just, he’s the anchor of the institution. And, we sat down and I said, I feel like we just had a baby together. And it was not just. Oh, congratulations, it’s opening night, it was like, that was a lot of effort that was a lot of multivitamins, a lot of doctor visits. A lot of planning and a lot of like, like you said it takes a lot more than just the narrative that you’re telling on stage. It’s all the stories you tell, it’s all of the avenues that you have to try and go down to get to your specific goal. You have one, you have like (uh). You have plan A. There is no plan B. But you have infinite ways to get to plan A. If you are resourceful, right? You have one to infinity ways to get to A because we aren’t doing B. Right? 

Marcus: Right. 

Caroline: Paul was like a sort of relentless collaborator with me in that. And I think, ya know, in creative space because it’s intellectual capital (thinking about capital things like that again). Creative spaces can be so tense and and fraught because you’re like - Oh god, somebody got my idea and so now. It can feel very precious and jealous with your ideas and projects and outputs. And it can be frightening to collaborate. And I think this was just so just not that and it really taught me that I don’t want to do projects alone anymore. I want to find ways to do things with other people I think are excellent who have skills sets I don’t have and then rise together. Do ya know? 

Marcus: Yeah 

Caroline: And what was really interesting is its real. Rhiannon Giddens is just the artist of the highest order. In every part of music, right? 

Marcus: Absolutely

Caroline: And for her to be. Ya know, everyone was so humble but to watch her just let my words do work while she’s doing work and to just be sort of relentlessly excellent and so kind and so willing to be humble to share space with me and with Kayla. That’s the way that something like that is able to happen. And I just felt like the whole thing had so little ego but so much (um) such high investment. And that was really extraordinary and you have to be able to trust that everyone is coming there with that. 

Marcus: Right

Caroline: And that we can all really tell the story together and of course Kayla Rouser just throwing all of her whole body and narrative and mind into being that part and so, that leads me to “who is lucy?”. Ya know there is the practical, historical truth of who Lucy was. There was a black woman or likely a black woman. There is small chance that she wasn’t but we’re pretty sure that she was a woman of african descent who was a brothel owner in London. During the time that Shakespere was working and living and writing so that is just true. Black Lucy, she is all up in the prison records. She was never arrested because she was a badass. Again. But, she is in the prison records because people kept getting arrested at her establishments such and such, apprehended at black luces, leaving black luces, going into black luces, like X, Y and Z. So, (um) you know, the sort of central question of my project is, was this the woman that Shakespere wrote his dark lady poems about? And, we’ll never know the actual answer to that question but you know, the last 37, maybe you don’t know this but maybe you do because you saw my show, I’ll repeat it. The last 37 of Shakespere’s sonnets are devoted to what history calls, the dark lady, right? 

Marcus: {agreeing} 

Caroline: Because he says things like,  then will I swear that beauty herself is black and all they foul that thy complexion lack. Or, thy black is fairest in my judgements place. Or, he calls her a woman colored ill he says if hairs be wires black wires grow on her head.

Marcus: Yeah, that was heavy. 

Caroline: Very convincing right? 

Marcus: I mean you’re taking me back to the shell. 

Caroline: Right? And you think to yourself like, if there's a chance that it’s a black girl it gets to reframe how I am reading all of this. So I went back to the poems and I was like - I get to see myself in all these. 

Marcus : Yep! 

Caroline: And so that where it leads me to - Lucy is this woman and she’s also the idea of being seen in the cannon. Right? 

Marcus: Yeah

Caroline: Which, you know, some people would say, you know, fuck the cannon and that’s fine but I think that because so much of the ideology and fundamental like, 

Marcus: It’s the basis of too much stuff 

Caroline: And so it’s uplifting to see us already there..  I mean, we always were there. 

Marcus: That’s right

Caroline: And we’ve always been, here. And when I say we (black people) We built this country. But to say, to not be erased and to not be implicitly there you know, the White House exists because there were slaves to build it. That’s an implicit presence. Right, but like, you know the idea of black people being named and celebrated. Thy black is fairest in my judgements place. That, and its like, its just in there. And kids are already being taught it, and we can go to it and see ourselves in it now. That’s a revelations

Marcus: Are you the first person in the academic world. People may not know this but you are also a professor. Are you the first person in academia to really see this and move it down a trail or is there or do you have contemporaries is this? 

Caroline: so I have. It’s a complicated question to answer. 

Marcus: I am glad I asked it though. 

Caroline: I am glad you asked it. Can I… How long do we have? I can blabber about this forever. 

Marcus: You can say whatever you want to say. And you can stop at the point where you think you are going to cause injury. 

Caroline: Oh no, but there is no injury. I think, so how I got to this book, I had just finished Teach for America in the Mississippi delta, which is how I realized, I needed to be a poet. Because the things that I witnessed, the good and the hard made me feel like I needed to bear witness and sink my roots further into this Southern life that I am choosing.  And so I got my MFA at the University of Mississippi and I had just started my MFA and in August of 2012, the Daily Mail, as again as I point out in my book, is one of Britain's more disreputable news papers but whatever and I read it everyday because it brings me pleasure. 

Marcus: It’s funny 

Caroline: Right, so I am reading the daily mail and I come across this article entitled “Was Bards Lady a woman of ill repute?” And I was like, “ooh! Bards Shakespeare Woman of Ill Repute” Prostitute. How exciting. So I click on this article and it leads me to a small discussion. And it’s not a long article about research being done by a gentleman called of Duncan Salkheld who’s a professor of english at the University of Chichester and was the one who sort of found evidence in these prison records that he’s been transcribing that Shakespeare and Black Luce were probably in the same place at the same time and has some real evidence of that. And that had never been found before. There have been scholars in the past there's a guy called GH White. There have been a handful of scholars overtime who are positive that maybe Black Luce was the dark lady but there are a few other candidates. People have spent a lot of time thinking about who the fair youth was and I think

Marcus: Yeah, that was another incredible character 

Caroline: It’s amazing and there is so much representation that happens in this show.  

Marcus: It’s unbelievable 

Caroline: The love triangle 

Marcus: When you understand what’s actually happening you’re just like - Shakespeare? 

Caroline: It’s amazing. And people posited about that and the whole sexual undertones and there are so many queer thematic themes going on in Shakespeare plays. Even down to like, you know if you think about in Twelfth Night or Alls Well That Ends Well we have Shakespeare playing a young man playing a young woman who is dressing up as a man and accidentally falling in love with a man. That’s crazy

Marcus: Yeah 

Caroline: So we have that already exists in Shakespeare but all of that back to Dr. Salkheld, he had found this evidence that Shakespeare and Black Luce were probably definitely in the same room together. 

Marcus: This is the book right? And this is in the show? 

Caroline: Dr. Salkheld, the show has a very abridged version of this part. 

Marcus: Yeah, it’s early and it’s quick 

Caroline: In the very beginning of the book. When I come out I sort of give a prologue and some people don’t even know it’s happening 

Marcus: You are trying to orient to everything that’s going on

Caroline: It’s like when I saw Hamilton and I didn’t even know what I was going to see and my jaw drops the floor and it’s Leslie (brilliant goddess) Tony played, Erin Burr. “How is a Bastard Orphan son of a whore” And you miss all of the background details because you are so shook and you just have to go listen to the soundtrack 30 more times and I feel like that is sort of the prologue. And so anyway, I go visit Dr. Salkheld and he shows me these prison records and I’m trippin and so there are people that have done research in the past on trying to figure out who the dark lady is. There are few candidates. There is a woman called Amelia Lanyer. There is another woman called, I am going to get her name wrong so I am not going to even try and posite it right now. There are a handful of people that have been posited and the luxury to me of being a creative academic so having my MFA, I can just make the leap I don’t have to substantiate it

Marcus: I was about to go there, you are talking about the people who are historians that are trying to get it right and you’re like, what if… 

Caroline: Yeah, exactly. I sort of said to myself and I say this in interviews sometimes but it’s just a true thing and a joke, and it’s, I love the Daily Mail. And, what’s his name, Randall Wallace, the american dude who was on a family vacation in Scotland, saw a statue of William Wallace who was however his distant ancestor and thought “I’m just going to write Braveheart”   And just decide that all this shit went down. 

Marcus: Right. Because you can. 

Caroline: Like and he just could. You can have these wild acts of imagination and the fact that there is room in both Shakespeare's text and within the historical details for my conjecture to be a valid one, is awesome! That is sort of like, where I say, there is a lot of really honorable more concrete scholarship around finding the dark lady. I found her for me so I made a decision about it and that is the luxury I have as a poet as opposed to a more straightforward academic that I can just make that leap. It’s anchored in all these peoples wonderful research and Dr. Salkhed was so supportive about the show and so generous with his time and letting me see the research and see the prison records and actually hold them in my hands is amazing. 

Marcus: Before I get into tactical, practical stuff. I have some real questions about that. Can you just take a second and talk about the creative process, the friendship, the sisterhood between you and Kayla? I think one of the very very clear things that came out in the show is that you three were acting as one. 

Caroline: Good! Yes, yes. 

Marcus: There were 3 people. One representing music, one representing spoken word and one representing body movement. All personifying the dark lady. So talk to me about how and what was that like. Because the first time I ever saw Rhiannon Giddons was on stage at the Americana Music awards two years ago. And I was like 

Caroline: Floored

Marcus: Who the fuck is that? Are you kidding me? Like, everything else was like really good and also just kind of okay. Next to her, right? So when I heard you were doing this I was just like - Woah, Caroline is not playing around!

Caroline: nope, not playing around. 

Marcus: So what was that like? 

Caroline: So, this story, so talk about origin stories. This story actually begins the freshman and sophomore year of college in 2007. The story begins in 2007. 

Marcus: Wow. Okay. 

Caroline: Rhiannon was 29, I was 19. I was an intern for 35 Sound Studio. Gilly Rosewell is a music director and it speaks to his wonderful wokeness. And he was a music director for the Great Debators, the one that Denzel directed and acted in. Besides Gilly I think almost every principal crew member. Denzel hired as many people of color that he could for that show. From costume directors to all the things. But then he asked Gilly to do the music. The reason I got that internship is because Gilly and my mom had worked on a movie further back in time. So I wound up getting this internship with 35 Sound and I got to go on location to Shreveport, LA for some of the filming of the movie and it was during the week that Gilly was actually coming down to shoot. Because he can source the music from L.A. but he had to be onset because he had gotten Sharon Jones and then the Caroline chocolate drops. 

Marcus: Recipes 

Caroline: Very much recipes. He had gotten Sharon Jones and the Carolina Chocolate drops and Alvin Youngblood Taylor to come be in the movie for this juke joints. 

Marcus: That sounds ridiculous. 

Caroline: So they built this juke in the swap on the Texas/Louisiana border. So we filmed in the middle of the night, every night for 4 days. 

Marcus: And how old are you? 19?

Caroline: 19 years old. Right, okay? 

Marcus: Your life is like really ridiculous. 

Caroline: It’s bonkers. I remember there was this one guy onset that kept leering at me and kept singing that song - 19 years old got ways just like a baby child. 

{laughs} 

Caroline: So I am sitting on the set and Rhiannon’s got this sort of luminous spirit. And she lets me sit in her trailer with her in the air conditioning with all the mosquitos and shes like telling me about her life and the chocolate drops are just taking off then. She’s just figuring out this sankofa strings things and so it’s dissolved and I just look at her and think - let me follow you. I want to follow this. And so at the time, I was sort of having this weird heart break that I thought that I was going to be an actress and that was my bread and butter from when I was a little girl. The first time I memorized a Shakespeare monologue was at a Shakespeare acting camp when I was 9 at Cheekwood here in Nashville. And I did the apprentice company with the Nashville Shakespeare festival and I went to acting school in London when I was in high school. I was in the Shakespeare acting school at the Stratford Shakespeare festival in Canada and I wanted to be a Shakespearean actress. And then my family said I had to go to real college. Not conservatory. I said okay but I really didn’t figure out how to engage in a way that made sense to me with the theater community at Harvard and maybe that was because my acting wasn’t working there or whatever that was. It just didn’t make sense so at that time,  I was just having had the first year of not being in a play. And I was like, how do we figure out how to keep our dreams alive in different versions? Remember, keep the plan A but have different angles?

Marcus: Right. Yes. 

Caroline: So I still wanted to find my way back to the stage and I still wanted to write my way in and still want to tell stories. And I am watching Rhiannon at 29 and living her dream. She had a meandering path. She was not a banjo player before she learned strings way after. She went to conservatory to sing. So I am watching her and wanting to be her at 19 years old and she’s 29 and then we lose touch but I always followed her career and was so excited for her. And did my own thing, ended up in Mississippi writing poems and really feeling so far from the stage at points. And then the cookbook comes out and there are some questions about “is there a cooking show?”. And then, there are just so many ways things have to happen to come together. So, Holly Gleason who is an amazing journalist who is based here in Nashville. I am sure you’ve met Holly. 

Marcus: Does she write for the Scene? Oh, the Tennessean

Caroline: Holly has written everywhere. 

Marcus: I keep seeing her name 

Caroline: Rolling Stone, I mean everything. 

Marcus: Rolling Stone, yep! 

Caroline: And, so Holly came to me and asked me if I wanted to write an essay for this book that she was editing and that she also has a piece in. The book is called Women Walk the Line and its women writers writing about women in country music. And so she asked me if I wanted to write.

Marcus: Which by the way is a revolutionary statement within itself about country music. 

Caroline: Right, exactly. And so, she asked me to write an article and she said I could write about whoever I wanted and I said, “Can I write about Rhiannon Giddons?”  So I start this piece about Rhiannon and right about that same time, Paul Vasterling has read Lucy Negro and has asked me if I would have a meeting with him. And I had never met Paul before, and so I 

Marcus: You are kidding! 

Caroline: There are so many kismet serendipitous things that came together for this to work. Lucy needed to be born. She wanted to be born. It’s inevitable. 

Marcus: Absolutely 

Caroline: It’s also just a ton of hard work in many directions and this relentless pursuit of one goal which is get back to stage, write your way in and so I tried it from the poetry angle, I tried it from teaching and bearing witness angle, the cooking, the tv, the music, they all came together. I sit down with Paul and he’s like, “I want to turn your book into a ballet.” He said “What do you think?” I was like “Oh my god I never would have thought of that but, great!” And then we sort on this house on fire and then he says “Reach for the stars who is your dream person to do the music in Nashville? Who’s your dream?”  You know where this is going

Marcus: Yep yep

Caroline: So I said “Well if it’s a woman, I would like it to be Rhiannon Giddens and if it’s a man, I would like it to be Jack White”. {giggles} Because, you know there is the black girl thing and the white male thing with Shakespeare.

Marcus: Yes, yes and both of those make complete sense to the story. 

Caroline: And I’ve been listening to a ton of not sure what she says here when I was writing the book which is crazy and a lot of little Wayne too and a lot of crazy stuff. I said if it’s a woman Rhiannon and a man Jack White and so you know who published the new edition of my book - Third Man, Jack’s book publishing company published the book. Rhiannon did the music so it was just this extraordinary thing of speaking things into existence, willing them hunting them down. And then the book comes out. The Woman Walk the Line book comes out and that sort of facilitated conversations and re-opening conversations with Rhiannon. Which was sort of just such a happy accident. And then she said yes! 

Marcus: Was that easy to to re...

Caroline: It was not easy but. It was easy but not simple. Sometimes I say it was simple but not easy. Like getting to the top of the mountain was simple, you keep walking up but it’s not easy. 

Marcus: Yeah, that’s right. 

Caroline: But this one was easy but not simple in the sense of we had to - mom ended up a book party that I was not able to attend for Women Walk the Line, she sees Rhiannon there and she says “My daughter wrote about your thing” and she was like “Oh, I remember you, I remember her that’s really cool. I am playing at show at the symphony hall, you guys should come, it’s in a couple weeks!” So then mom and I just go, we just go to see Rhiannon and it was so easy. She runs into her at a cocktail party, it’s easy. 

Marcus:  But not so forward. 

Caroline: No not at all. Not simple. So we go to her show. Mom texts Rhiannon and she’s like “Do y’all want dinner after the show?” So we get like bbq sandwiches and have some red wine at my parents apartment downtown. And I am meanwhile texting Paul because he is so good for the sell. He wants somebody to close a deal. If you get Paul Vashling in a room so I was like “Paul, get over here. You need to talk her into doing this music for the show like right now” So Rhiannon’s just hanging. Paul comes over and he’s like talking about the ballet and Rhiannon’s so into it. She’s just getting her McArthur genius grant but she’s such a visionary that shes like when I can do small weird things cause I have the cushion as opposed to some people would say, I’ve got this grant this is beneath me now. But again this comes from the synergy, the humility, the level of investment of telling these stories of other people. So, long story short, Paul talked her into doing one song and then we started working together and then finally, we say
“Why don’t you just do the whole thing” and she was like “yeah!” So that just happened that way. And none of this would’ve happened if Kayla Rouser wouldn’t have been at Nashville Ballet doing the work that she’s been doing. Sort of exquisitely for years before. Ya know because, Paul, when he read my book, he saw her. 

Marcus: He saw her, yes. 

Caroline: He read my book and he saw her 

Marcus: Yes, I got that when you said that he called you. I was like he saw this for her. 

Caroline: Yes, and it’s this extraordinary thing of ya know the more I understand about the dance world and how complicated it is and it’s like any other space and I remember thinking I wanted to play Juliet and I am excited to play black Juliet but I wanted to be Juliet. 

Marcus: Right, Right. 

Caroline: And so there’s like, you want race to matter in a sense that you want to be kicking down doors but you want it to not matter that you want what you’ve done to stand 

Marcus: On its merit. 

Caroline: Yeah on it’s merit. And I think that Kayla career up to this point of Lucy had been very much about establishing her objective excellence. Without consideration of her race and I think that having this show and watching her inhabit the role and in some ways the most radically challenging work of all. I remember going to the first rehearsal where I was actually saying my poems instead of the recordings. I made a recording of them so that they could have them for rehearsal and I didn’t have to be there for everything. And watching Kayla dance and Paul does an amazing job with diversity but watching her be the only black woman in the room. Alani is also in the room, she just got promoted to full member of the company. 

Marcus: Congrats, Alani. 

Caroline: Yay! We love you girl, congratulations. But watching Kayla dance with very much a white gaze on her to words where I say The idea of her warm brown body, long stretching under his hands is a righteous want. She’s become another way to talk about skin, you know, the world heavy mule of her born line by line on the page. Or like, Lucy Negro is the black aestheic  large across a white riverside brick. Ya know watching Kayla just dance to that, as like a black body almost alone in a very white space and knowing that she had been doing that everyday. 

Marcus: Was there catharsis in that? 

Caroline: I think for me it was. I felt very proud of her and I felt like really full of admiration and I didn’t know that’s what I was asking her to do. Because, that’s a thing. 

Marcus: Yeah, yeah. 

Caroline: Ya know, cause that’s a thing. 

Marcus: Things change in hindsight but as you are saying this to me it feels like somebody wrote a poem that is mapping. Even if it wasn’t for me it certainly speaks to my experience. 

Caroline: Yeah, and watching Kayla find who Lucy is to her because the black experience is not a monolith. 

Marcus: No, definitely not. 

Caroline: So, Rhiannon and I in some ways because I grew up in the music industry and we sort of have a more shared background of how we occupy a black space and Kayla’s journey to Lucy just like 1. Made me again, so full of admiration for her but then also deepen my understanding of what I hoped the book could do because, I really meant it when I said I really want it to be for every person that had ever felt othered and I wanted us all to all the way be Lucy. So for Lucy to all the way make sense to her and how we were to structure the libretos so that Lucy’s narrative is one that makes Kayla feel like she’s got the power and how we talk about the choreography. Kayla is a tiny human. And Alan Thorn who dances Shakespeare beautifully is a gigantic man.  

Marcus: He really is.

Caroline: And Nicolas Sawyer is also a formidable man, ya know the fair youth. So thinking about how to make sure that this woman has all the power on stage. 

Marcus: She had it 

Caroline: right and she did. She has it in her face and in her presence but also it’s like making choices about choreography. Making choices about 

Marcus: It was energetically in the movement 

Caroline: When Rhiannon and I are reinforcing and how we make sure how that always is the structure.  Us being able to have those conversations as the show was unfolding and choreography was happening and the poems were getting chosen and fitting in here and there. That was just really extraordinary thing to figure out all of the ways to make sure Lucy had power in all of her say  and that was always a conversation and it always happened best, ya know I wrote the book, Paul and I sat down and wrote the libretto for the most part the narrative structure remained and we put a bunch of poems in. And at one point the document was 25 pages and then we cut it down to 13 and then I think it grew back to 22 or 23 by the end of the show. That sort of back and forth and that growth happened all authentically when we were all in the room. Kayla was dancing and having her say. Rhiannon was playing and we were sort of vibing off of each other and I was going we really might need a line to reinforce what’s going on in Lucy’s head and give the audience enough of an anchor. They aren’t watching an angry black woman, they are watching like a strong empowered woman who is dealing with a man that is not coming through with the things that he is supposed to. And that’s a different thing than just watching someone get angry who you expect to get angry. Right? 

Marcus: Yeah, right. 

Caroline: So that was amazing. 

Marcus: Yeah. Okay we are going to shift. We can talk about Lucy a lot more. By the way let me ask you a question, have you, this is just context for me, the show was covered by the New York Times. How much media did you around the show? 

Caroline: The ballet has hired a really amazing team to make sure that Lucy got her right light shone on her. 

Marcus: Yeah, it happened. 

Caroline: We did a press push in New York. We actually had two articles in the New York times. 

Marcus: I remember this, I remember this 

Caroline: And we sat down with can’t understand the person she is referencing and she was amazing and so engaged and invested in the story and wrote her beautiful piece that What if I Told You That Shakespeare Had A Black Girlfriend (not whatever, but I can’t remember the title exactly). 

Marcus: {giggles} 

Caroline: Margaret Rankel wrote her beautiful review - A Nashville Beauty herself is black, A Nashville miracle. 

Marcus: What a headline! 

Caroline: Isn’t that crazy? I wept. 

Marcus: C’mon, c’mon. What a headline. 

Caroline: How is this a thing? There was an intention press push and it did the work it needed to do and we sat down with Dance Magazine, we sat down with, and we did sit down with Towne and Country but they didn’t get it enough to do a piece on it but that’s okay. 

Marcus: That’s okay. I think that’s fine. 

Caroline: But the hope is and now because the press was effective enough I think we are going to take it to Manhattan in either late 2020 or early 2021. 

Marcus: Okay

Caroline: Which will be amazing

Marcus: Yes, I knew that was happening. It has to. It has to. 

Caroline: And hopefully some further traveling after that. There was an intentional press push. The Siegenthaler team did that and that's again the sort of joy of the city. Everywhere you turn there is art and everywhere you turn there are patrons of the art that want to do work for art for it’s own sake and because there is a meaningful connection. There is a meaningful and social emotional personal connection to the institutions that make and support art in this town. That was a big gift. 

Marcus: Talk to me about the principles by which you live your life. That could be broad so I am going to narrow it down a little bit. That enables you to be such a strong creative person. There are certain characteristics that your work just exemplifies. So there's a tremendous amount of courage. There is a very high level of quality. There’s all sorts of things about art being interpreted and beauty being the eye of the beholder but I think there is also some objective reality about a piece of work that just comes in at a level of quality that someone says you either like it or not. That is high quality work. 

Caroline: I hope so

Marcus: And so the courage, the quality of the work the space to allow these things to come to you. You know I think some people's lives are so cluttered and you talked about this so easy and not simple thing. And some of that. What I heard in there was that you had the space to allow serendipity to happen. What are the principles you live by to allow that to happen? 

Caroline: Okay, gosh. The space to allow serendipity. When I think about that story I was telling from my mom working on the set of this movie with Gilly to back in the day to my heartbreak to my acting not being a thing at the moment. (Although I did find my back to the stage didn’t I?) 

Marcus: You did, you did

Caroline: And then you know fighting to find some other space. So one of the principles is keep plan A and use your infinite options.

Marcus: I’m walking with that one.  

Caroline: That’s a really important one for me. Another thing my mom always says is that success breeds success. And so that circles back to keep plan A and use your infinite options because I found a way to be good at writing poems I didn't figure out the acting thing. I knew that that was a goal I knew that getting back on stage finding my way back to Shakespearean stage was a goal. And not getting cast at things at Harvard I haven’t figured this out so I am going to write poems. I am going to write poems and I am going to get really good at it. I wrote poems, I graduated. My thesis got magna cum laude and graded by Amy Hempel who’s one of the greatest american short story writers of ever. And Dory Graham who is the first woman to win a Pulitzer prize for poetry and graded my undergraduate thesis and gave it magna cum laude. Not summa but magna’s good. I’m happy. 

Marcus: That’s pretty good. 

Caroline: I wrote those poems and that was a success and then I got into Teach for America, another success and completing my two years in the delta and finding my way and realizing that I needed to do the witness bearing of writing about that success. And then those eventually all come together. The cookbook gives me space. The advance of the cookbook. Learning how to tell stories, learning how to do press. Learning how to present myself in southern spaces, in black spaces, and translate narratives that are non-traditional into new forms. The cookbook gave me a much bigger platform and allowed people to take me seriously as a published writer. So then, when Lucy’s coming out, I already have some context in the publishing world. So all of these things in moments I always knew that I had the goal of writing my way in. To the space I wanted to be in. To getting back to the stage, getting back in front of audiences and getting to tell stories verbally and presently and not just on the page. It sometimes felt like a winding road like when you said you met me and you said what are all these different things. It can feel very kaleidoscopic and patched worked and it was all towards this goal and I was like, I am just going to keep on doing things that I can do excellently. Because if they all speak to me and they all come from me and they will all come together and when that narrative finally assembles. It’s going to be some kind of magic that only I could’ve done. Right? And so success breeds success. Infinite ways to plan A. And a third one (this is going to be familiar to anyone raised by anyone who was ever old and black) My great grand-father who was Edmund Pettus’ child, who never knew how to read and write because his father didn’t want him to. But did have a car strangely. My great -grandfather used to say. Well do you want this thing? Like white people have this thing, do you want it to? And, if the answer is yes, than work 3 times as hard and have what you want. And it’s not fair, but that doesn’t really matter. Do you want it or not? 

Marcus: It is what it is

Caroline: it is what it is. Get it and then change the system from above. But the work three times as hard and get what you want principle is one that has been really valuable to me because it stops you from saying “oh it’s unfair” It’s already fucking unfair and we know that. So what are you going to do about it? And there are parts of my life that where I am like well this is unfair and I am not fighting for it. 

Marcus: Right. Right. 

Caroline: I am not fighting to have...

Marcus: I’m opting out of that one. 

Caroline: It’s too hard. Like I was not born with streamlined white genetics or like glorious Kenyan ones or whatever. Whatever like body type and I am not prepared to work three times as hard and have that even though i want it. 

Marcus: I feel you, I feel you

Caroline: I am just not. But there are things I am prepared to work three times as hard for and have what I want. And complaining about the fairness or not I am just grateful that I have the ability to work three times as hard than some people. That’s valuable. And then I think the last one. Well maybe not the last one. I am riffing here. 

Marcus: This is good. This is really good. 

Caroline: Have a day job that matters to me (so this is actually two there are two more). Having a day job that feels like it has integrity and value so for me that has been teaching. Because teaching even when you are full time teaching I was never able to write when I was teaching in the Delta, during the time that school was in. But the thing about teaching is that you do get long vacations. I never took a break. Vacation was not vacation, it was writing time. So I was doing two jobs. I was just crunching all of my writing into summer and Thanksgiving and Christmas and all of those things. But having a day job that mattered to me was really important to me. I really admire people who chose to have a day job that doesn’t take up space that they can do their art alongside. If you are a waitress or you are working retail and that gives you mental room to write your screenplay or record your album that also is very valuable but for me the teaching informs my writing so that was really precious to me. The last one is, this is a phrase that I learned from a dear dear friend who was in the army. Saturate. Incubate. Eliminate as a way of making a battle planner procedure. Which I like. I wish I could trademark that. I’m trademarking it. 

Marcus: I have no idea but it sounds pretty good. 

Caroline: You can’t steal it. We have it recorded. You can’t steal it. Anyone who tries to steal it we’re gonna pull up this podcast. This shit is mine. Working on a memoir. Saturate, Incubate, Eliminate. You saturate yourself with information. 

Marcus: you take, take, take, take, take. 

Caroline: You incubate, you have to sit on it. And then you eliminate, you cut away the stuff you don’t need in order to proceed. And so to me, that is very much my writing process, like I know people who sit down everyday and write, I don’t. I like to take 

in the world. I take in the news, I take in my friends,  throw dinner parties and have conversations that inspire and stimulate me. And then I wander around my house and reorganize my closet and I clean my bathroom and I plant a garden. I’m incubating. And then I sit down and I write one I am ready. Once the saturation process and incubation process has happened then I can eliminate the words that I don’t need the narrative strands I don’t need to tell a story. Understanding that that is a process has been valuable for me because I think as a millennial and as a citizen of the world, in the 21st century. As an American, we are overworked and under productive. 

Marcus: Yes. 

Caroline: I think knowing that I am saturating and incubating and celebrating those parts of my process are so important to me because I think it could look like procrastination or laziness. Or decadent. And maybe that’s intentional. That part I am good with.  But I think that knowing when I am in my house wanting to water my plants that that isn’t me avoiding my work that is me saying I am still in my incubation period and when the thing is ready to come it comes and knowing my process and not being self reproachful about the time my brain takes to generate the art that it want to make. That has been a radical shift and my joy in the writing process because I haven’t been any less productive. I’ve just enjoyed my time that I’m not writing more. And actually done more fruitful things with my home and my social life and things like that. 

Marcus: That is super insightful and that all the things. I love the plan A piece. Can I just reflect a little bit? 

Caroline: Yeah, go! 

Marcus: I love the plan A piece because one thing I have been observing lately in the world. I am a creative and I am working more and creating from a writing perspective but a lot of my stuff is around innovation and if you’re an innovator I think you are as well right? And this is why I think the plan A thing is so striking for me. You don’t pay undue reverence for strategies to tactics that are just for a window of time. They are not timeless wisdom. There are as you said infinite ways to get to plan A. Because I don’t think that people have that understanding. They pay too much reverence to protocols. 

Caroline: You have to get less literal. If  my plan A had just remained, I want to be a member of the royal Shakespeare company. There are limited ways to get to that plan A. But you have to figure out what is the core of this dream? What is the nature of this dream? Is it that you want to be on stage no matter what? It is that you want to tell Shakespeare stories no matter what? It is that you voice heard and you want to feel seen all the time no matter. Or some intersection of those things and figure out what the actual concern is and not like the literal job title. And I think people have trouble doing the critical analysis. The reading between the lines. The explication of the text as opposed to the literal word. The decoding. 

Marcus: I completely agree and I think that dovetails very nicely with your last principle. The whole, saturate, incubate, eliminate. Because, you’ve allowed for that incubation time to be part of the process as opposed to an avoidance to the process. And that is a paradigm shift. It’s like you are not giving your subconscious any credit. You know what I mean? 

Caroline: For real though

Marcus: It's a thing and it’s working and it will work on your behalf if you just get the fuck out the way for a second. 

Caroline: You wouldn’t bake a cake and be like why isn’t it done? You mix it up all together and say it’s not cooked. Well no shit, you didn’t leave it in the oven long enough. 

Laughing

Marcus: Yes, yes. This was as good as I thought it was going to be. Is there anything you haven’t said that you wanted to say? 

Caroline: Gosh, I probably have said more than I ought to have said. Thank you, I am so glad you thought of me. I am so grateful to have conversations like this as part of my dream making. 

Marcus: You are one of my. You are in my friends circle. People who I am like “ How am I friends with that person?” 

Caroline: Back at ya. They put you on the wall at the airport. 

Marcus: She is ridiculous. Yeah, whatever, I’ll tell that story sometime. Okay so, where can people find you and what you are doing right now. You’re kinda on tour and poetry tours. 

Caroline: People can find you on my website. But that’s about to be updated but you can find me on my website and on Instagram - Caroranwill. You can also find me now that I am full time at Vanderbilt I am on the MHS website as writing residence. I think I am reading some poems at Pilgrimage Festival but that’s not until September. I don’t have any official readings on the book but third man always comes up with fun  things to do. Also follow the third man books and record pages because they are always creating amazing platforms for their authors to speak. I just read that the third man shop in Detroit and that was fire. 

Marcus: So dope that you are working with Third Man too. 

Caroline: LIke I said, speak your dreams into existence. 

Marcus: It’s amazing. 

Creative Power Hour 6