Shin Yu Photo Above: Jennifer Grigg
Photo: Jennifer Grigg
When I heard about Theo Wilson’s new History Channel show I Was There, I knew I wanted to have a conversation with Theo about shifting from his work as a poet and public speaker into television. Theo and I were both ILI leadership program participants from 2018 to 2019. I’ve kept an eye on his creative projects knowing that he’s always up to new and interesting things and was excited to see him cross over into a new form of storytelling. Like Theo, I’ve also expanded my creative work this past year to write podcast scripts for KUOW, my local public radio station in Seattle. The occasion of the release of these new storytelling projects into the world felt like the perfect opportunity to sit down and reflect together on how being poets helped to prepare each of us for our current work and new directions.
What role has the influence of poetry and being a poet played in your current work?
Theo Wilson: Poetry taught me how to speak publicly. I didn’t realize I was initiating myself into probably one of the most high intensity public speaking schools possible. But that’s what slam really is. Slam teaches you how to organize your thoughts and create impactful and emotionally charged metaphors in your writing. So slam no only prepared me to speak but it prepared me to be a journalist. And to practice word economy with my thought process. So when it comes to competing on stage and oratory contests, after that speeches in general, and not only performing but writing them tended to be pretty easy.
Shin Yu Pai: Poets work with compression and precision of language which can be very useful in writing a script and telling a story written for being read aloud. Poetic, lyric language can be brought into other forms of writing to make them less linear, more imagistic, and imaginative to hook the listener and to bring them along a journey. The tools of poetic writing that can be used to set a scene or create an experience can bring the writing alive and elevate it to a new level. As a poet that’s performed and toured nationally, I’ve read my work to so many audiences and that’s shaped how I think about reading for radio.
Any favorite poems and influences?
TW: My favorite poets included Hafiz. Contemporary Andrea Gibson was always miraculous to listen to. I was influenced by Talaam Acey – he was very influential. Tupac also widely influential. I was always fascinated by people who could be real good spellbinders with their words. I wanted to study not only their process but their mechanics of why it was successful.
SP: I love that you mention Hafiz. Rumi has been important to me. Along with other ancient poets who explore the intersections of the sacred and language. Lately, I’ve been reading Avvaiyar, as well as Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma’s translation of The Kural. Arthur Sze has been incredibly important to me. Koon Woon and Alan Chong Lau, here in Seattle, are also important to me.
Oral histories, family histories, and archives can be a powerful way to approach talking about larger aspects of public history. How are you working with these different kinds of sources in your current work?
TW: I was blessed that History Channel took an interest in my personal family history. I always felt like we were historians. My grandfather had a giant archive of photographs from our journey in America. My family got here in 1916. Retelling my grandfather’s journey to and through the Tuskegee airmen really gets me in the drivers’ seat to talk about the treatment of black veterans. Black people’s contributions to the American story and how my family personally fits into that. And how we were both affected by the opportunities and the discrimination that’s inherent in the landscape. So my telling the micro – by telling the personal history, you also tell the macro, the national and world history.
SP: For my podcast series for KUOW, I use a specific individual’s personal story or experience to dive into telling the larger social history of our times. Musician Tomo Nakayama talks about making Japanese recipes during the pandemic drawn from watching episodes of Midnight Diner while feeling homesick for family. Glass artist Etsuko Ichikawa talks about the impact of the Fukushima Disaster on her creative practice and how that pushed her towards activism in her artmaking.
What has the experience of shifting into working in a new medium been like for you? What are you learning about your creative practice and the platform that is now available to you?
TW: It’s high pressure. Something about me thrives in high pressure. When you walk on set as the star of a show, you are the center cog in a giant machine. There’s a whole lot that happens or doesn’t happen based on how sharp you are. One thing I was immediately aware of is my ability to dictate how the day goes for everybody on set. In order to that, I have to be on top of my P’s and Q’s. I really have to have my i’s dotted and my T’s crossed. Memorized. Sharp. Intuitively tuning into what’s being asked of me on camera. And what directors and producers are seeking to say implicitly. And that also meant that I formed relationships with decision makers on the project to form input in terms of historical narrative.
SP: Working in radio is very collaborative and team-based. I’m responsible for writing, revising, and taking feedback. I’m very grateful to have the expertise of audio editors and producers who can translate my writing into an audio format. I’m not a huge listener of podcasts. I love This American Life. And then I read books. So having trusted thought partners who can help me understand where the writing needs to evolve has been key. And who can tell me when I’m overly tending towards the intellectual or cerebral. Poetry can be very small stakes. Most of my books have been printed in editions of 1,000 copies or less. They may sell out over many many years. Poetry is for a very particular audience. A small one. I’ve given poetry readings to an audience of two people. With radio, we’re aiming for 30,000 listeners in the first month. It’s such a different platform for creative work.
What is your involvement with the writing and hosting? And story development?
TW: One of the first things they asked me was how well I know history and do I have an actual passion for it. One of the things that separated me out was when they asked me a series of questions about history in and of itself, I gave answers that I did not know were far and away perhaps the most impactful and unique of all the people interviewed for this role. They interviewed I believe over 100. Me being able to actually recite and talk about history meant that I could be both an on-camera and off-camera asset. That came into play in a few episodes, especially around the things that centered around black folks.
SP: For the first season of “The Blue Suit” – I came up with all of the story ideas which were then refined with my editor and producer for coherency. We came up with a general formula around focusing the story or episode around a specific object owned by a guest, around which a story about personal and cultural values could emerge. My podcast is focused specifically on Asian American stories – something that I wanted very much to focus on during a time when we’re seeing a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and anti-Asian rhetoric that was exacerbated by the pandemic and the last political administration. In addition to writing the scripts, I host the series and tie all the stories together. Someone said to me the series is like “This Asian American Life.” I kind of like that.
What stories do you hope to tell in your work that you haven’t yet seen broadly represented?
TW: I hope to tell the stories of some of the black heroes and sheroes that I grew up hearing about. I was blessed to be born into a family of historians. My father told me all about other folks that don’t make the history books who absolutely wrote the history of America. Like Jim Beckwourth and Bass Reeves. John Horse’s Seminole rebellion – I’m part Seminole on my mother’s side. I want to tell stories that have to do with success, invention, and break-through. A lot of times, with the exception of the John Lewis episode – the season was just bloody. Oklahoma City bombing. St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Hindenburg Disaster. The Challenger blowing up. I want to talk about the Tuskegee airmen and what it was for the ground crew. The pilots had the glory. But they didn’t think black men could do it. My grandfather was ground crew, not a pilot. But Tuskegee was built on the idea that black men couldn’t pull it off.
SP: If we’re renewed for another season, I’d like to interview activist and race car driver Al Young, who was involved in a public dispute around museum deaccession of his parents’ traditional Chinese textiles and artifacts. I’ve been playing with the idea of what constitutes an object or artifact and approached this idea conceptually at times. Like in the current season, I explore whether a song can be an artifact. If a recipe, in addition to an ingredient be an artifact. I’d like to keep pushing the abstract thinking and consider artifacts in the context of “sayings” (cultural aphorisms), names, and also tattoos.
What will we tell future generations about what we lived through?
TW: I think that it’s important to elucidate what we had to live through and what we didn’t have to live through. What we had to live through was not in our control. That was the will of humans being inhumane. So if you have a situation where a volcano that blows up, there’s a tsunami, natural disaster, or a plague – that comes from natural causes. We live through it and we banded together. What sucks is when you tell people the inhumanities that you had to endure at the hands of other people and they see all too familiar patterns playing out in their present day reality. That’s no fun. Because it means there was a lesson learned from history that was missed. The overall didactic purpose went astray somewhere. I hope they understand this entire experiment of humanity is a work in progress. If there was progression – take the tools from our generation that we are passing down to you and apply them to the challenges of your day.
SP: I am mother to a young mixed-race child who is white passing. So much culture and history will be lost between my parents’ immigrant generation and my son, as a 3rd generation mixed-race Asian American. I want him to understand the privileges that he has been given through the lives that his grandparents and I fought for as constant outsiders in our communities. We talk about everything – George Floyd, the Atlanta spa massacre, gun violence in Uvalde. We talk about history as it’s being made and lived, and as we have the capacity to challenge the narrative through the ways in which we choose to represent other voices and experiences in a history that is not broadly inclusive of Asian or BIPOC voices.
What did your time in the ILI leadership program add to your perspective or inform what you’re up to now?
TW: During the ILI leadership program, I learned a great deal about the intersectionality of the histories of people who have been colonized, enslaved and are overcoming the colonizing, enslaving experience. We compared notes. There are certain reservoirs of patterns that are contained within certain group’s of people’s histories that they may not know are contained within other people’s history. When you get to compare notes with other people who have overcome their version of struggle against the colonization of the last 500 years of Eurocentric imperialism – then you just find so much common ground. If you can get past who struggled more – you find that all of our struggles matter and we all have something to contribute to perfecting the great work of America and the world. And at least, we have the ability to heal together. That’s what I got from ILI.
SP: ILI really helped me to understand collective liberation and the ways in which different groups can come together in accompliceship to build movements together. When we get past the Oppression Olympics – all of our histories and experiences can be seen, heard, and valued. And it’s finding the common connections that helps to facilitate the healing.
I had a catalytic moment in seeing the wide diversity and expression of Latinx identities, alongside a range of indigenous and cultural tribal representations. Suddenly, I was able to see “Asian Americans” through a more complicated lens. Serving on a panel on AAPI experiences – I realized that we represented a Chinese migrant, a person of the Korean diaspora who grew up in Latin America, a mixed race individual who had grown up in Hawaii. And then there was my own experience. As the daughter of Taiwanese Americans that grew up in a non-Asian community in Southern California. I narrated the history of the model minority identity and myth to our cohort and that was truly the moment when I began to dedicate more of my professional work to elevating the stories of Asian Americans of the diaspora. The podcast I’m working on would not have happened if I hadn’t finally seen how much stories about Asian Americans matter and need to be heard and understood.
View episodes of Theo Wilson’s I Was There at the History Channel at https://www.history.com/shows/i-was-there.
Listen to episodes of Shin Yu Pai’s The Blue Suit at KUOW Shorts when it launches on July 11, 2022, at https://www.kuow.org/podcasts/shorts.