Ren Jender is a writer/performer who for eight and a half years was the host and founder of The Amazon Slam, a Boston-based all woman poetry slam that won “The Best Poll” of The Boston Phoenix from 1998-2003 and was named “Best of Boston” in Boston Magazine in 1999. Her work has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Bay Windows and Spare Change. She has been profiled in The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, The Boston Metro, The Boston Phoenix, Curve and Teen Voices. She was the co-curator/co-producer of the Lisa King Memorial show in Boston in May of 2006.
She’s currently working on a new creative and community project. Here’s Ren…
As a long-time writer and performer, what work patterns have you developed and what changes have you seen in your work?
Like most artists I regularly discover the Key to Creating Good Art. It’s listening to the right music while you’re working! It’s being around artists and art that inspires you! It’s having a deadline that you can’t squirm out of! But then I lose that Key and have to find another one. I will say that sitting down regularly for at least an hour a day has been helpful. When I write, I’m not results-oriented. I don’t have a goal of how many words I should have at the end of the day. I just keep my head down and work for an hour (or more). I do it the same way musicians practice. Not everything musicians play during practice will sound pretty, but practice still helps. Right now I’m working on a book, so it’s a longer form than I’m used to. I first started out writing essays, but once I got caught up in the performance scene I started to do short work. It was good training, because in a bar (where a lot of the performance poetry takes place) you have to engage the audience immediately or they’ll just drink and talk while you’re trying to perform. Even now my first drafts are set up like poems. They seem much more immediate to me that way and I can better keep track of having to hold a reader’s or listener’s attention in every single line. More prose writers should have the kind of training that writer-performers have.
You recently started a new community project, the Queer Women Artists’ Dinner (QWAD). Can you tell readers more about this project, and your recent decision to move the dinner online?
I started the Queer Women Artists’ Dinner (QWAD) as a local, in-person, informal networking and support gathering. I didn’t promote it all that much and the first meeting was the Thursday before Memorial Day. Everyone was on her way out of town, but we still had a ton of women show up, and they didn’t come just for beans and rice. I think too many of us are thinking we are working alone, because we are isolated from one another in separate spaces and studios. But seeing and talking to other artists disabuses us of the notion that all of us have to toil by ourselves looking for a place to show or publish work. There’s no need for each one of us to reinvent the wheel to find out what might be welcoming spaces. I am putting the community online (as of yesterday!) so queer women artists from all over can pool information and help one another. I had to rename it: now it’s the Queer Women Artists’ Directive, so it’s still QWAD. I also hope women in other cities can have in-person, networking and support gatherings. The Boston QWAD is going to resume dinners in the latter part of October. Folks can go to http://community.livejournal.com/qwaddies for more info.
As a mentor, what are some common obstacles you find many women writers and performers are facing?
The culture at large has such odd and narrow ideas of how women should express themselves that many women distrust their own voices and experience. In the media men often say “You’re angry,” to women they want to shut up. They don’t use that line to shut up men because no man is chastened when someone calls him “angry.” Very few male comedians would have careers if they weren’t allowed to be angry onstage. I see women, whether they’re running for office or doing a comedy routine, doing their damnedest to make sure they don’t appear angry, and there’s a lot for them to be angry about these days! Women writer-performers never know where the line is with an audience until they cross it. But my way to fight a culture that wants women to show a lot of cleavage, but doesn’t want them to talk about the noises they make during sex is to put the noises I make during sex in my writing and then put that writing out in the world.
What is the status of your all-women poetry slam, The Amazon Slam? How did it originate and what is its current state?
I started The Amazon Slam in March of 1996 so women could have a place where they could perform their work without worrying that some male judge would pigeonhole them as “that feminist poet.” I thought I’d do only a couple Amazon Slams, but the event was such a success with both performers and audiences (winning among other awards several “Best Spoken Words in The Boston Phoenix Readers’ Poll) that we ended up having monthly slams through September of 2004. All good things must come to an end, and I was ready to do something different, so I started GirlsNQueers First, an all-queer revue of various writer-performers that happens every year, sometimes more than once. I like the idea of performers expanding their performance repertoire beyond the three-minute, no-musical-accompaniment limit of poetry slams.
In 2006, you were the co-curator/co-producer of the Lisa King Memorial show in Boston. What did this project, and the life of Lisa King, mean to you?
I’ve written a lot about Lisa, but nothing’s been published yet, so I feel like I could write pages and pages. Lisa was on the winning team of the 1993 National Poetry Slam and was one of two extremely out queers on that team. She was one of the first writer-performers I ever saw and the first who made me think, as many performers at The Amazon Slam later made me think, “What she just said I’ve been thinking my entire life.” Lisa was also one of the first people to put together all-queer slams. We weren’t buddies, but she put me on the path to the work I did with The Amazon Slam and the all-queer poetry national poetry slam (sadly now defunct) that she started. Fifteen years after I first saw her perform she is still an influence on my writing. When she died I was struck that she hadn’t put out a full-length book or a one-woman show, so a lot of her work as a performer died with her. My only solace was reading about how many other people across the country, like Sini Anderson, one of the founders of Sister Spit, were influenced and inspired by her. I had no idea!
The memorial was a marathon performance of folks from all over, friends as well as performers, who had come to pay tribute. It was really fitting, and so good to see her talk and perform one last time in some rare video footage.
How would you like to be remembered as an artist?
I want to be the voice that folks can’t get out of their heads, the way that Lisa King and Staceyann Chin’s voices stay in my head. I want people to have that same samadhi moment when they read or hear my work that I’ve had with the writer-performers I’ve loved, “What she just said I’ve been thinking my whole life.”
Is there anything you would like to add?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that in the current economic climate spending time doing work that won’t immediately be compensated is probably one of the hardest struggles for me and most other artists. As little as 11 years ago, where I live (in the Boston area) folks could pay rent in a funky, queer-friendly neighborhood and not necessarily even have to work full-time. Now not only do folks have to work full-time they have to work overtime. And pretty much everyone, even my queer, politically-aware, feminist, artist friends can’t help being caught up in the uber-acquisitiveness of the moment. They need to devote even more time to their day-jobs, so they can buy more stuff from Ikea. I think we’re really at the crisis-point: either communities find ways to help artists, with a lot of affordable housing and grants for work, or everyone who creates art will have to have a trust-fund–or tenure.