Every week, I’ll be doing a mini feature on my site (& blasting it on social media) on activists, artists, and educators who are doing important things in the world. Like Levar Burton says, the only thing these folks have in common is that I like them, and I hope you do too.
This week’s feature is Lisa Pegram.
Lisa’s work is electric. She writes in vivid hues. Her words, like the way she moves through the world, embody stark amazement, managing to be curious and sharp at the same time. Above all else, she is generous–with her readers, with her communities, with herself. It’s my honor to feature her here today, among the rightful lineage of #badasscrushes. You can purchase “Cracked Calabash” here, “Next Verse Poets Mixtape” here, find her site here, and check out her wonderful food creations on Instagram at @ladypcoq.
What themes or ideas do you feel your work engages with?
I write a lot about identity, as relates to culture and race, and have a specific interest in themes that relate to women and girls. Social justice is a key theme in my work. As of late, I have also been writing a lot about the dynamics of family, and delving deeper into my own history to explore the patterns, good and bad, that influence who we become, either because we accept or reject the legacy. Self-care and love, and how we get there based on our internal and external biases and traumas are also a common thread in my work.
Most often, my goal is to experiment with depth of field, zooming in on the personal to show the intricacies of individual stories, then zooming out to suggest how one experience fits in the greater universal context. I believe the human experience is not unique, that we all experience the same core range of emotions, wants and needs, it’s just the circumstances that are unique. That common thread is what unites us, and what I seek to unearth in the stories that I tell. All of that means that what I create springs from a space of healing, which the process does for me, and what I aim to offer my readers.
What were you like as a child?
I was incredibly precocious and vocal. I come from a family of professors, so I was an avid independent reader from the age of three. As an only child, this came in handy because I could entertain myself, given that I was most often in the company of adults. I was also encouraged to contribute to their endless intellectual conversations to the best of my ability, which I did, but also able to read the room enough to know when “grown folks are talking” and fall back.
When I got a bit older, say from the age of seven, in the summers my Dad used to take me to Paperback Booksmith or Barnes and Noble every Saturday and let me pick out a stack of books that I would devour over the course of the week. My parents divorced when I was two or so, and my Mom and I had moved from Boston to DC, so I spent my childhood from the age of four flying on my own back and forth between them. I was also a latchkey kid who spent a lot of time at home alone, so had to grow up pretty quickly and take on a lot of responsibilities. Because of that, I’d say the one thing my childhood lacked was a sense of innocence. In some ways, I never considered myself a child. Between my responsibilities and spending most of my time around adults, I never had that carefree, child-like experience. While I enjoyed playing with kids my age now and then, their conversation somewhat bored me, so my friends were often older, or kids who had the same level of responsibility that I did.
My family is about all things culture, so I’ve always loved anything that had to do with the arts, good food and fashion. I LOVED music and started collecting vinyl on my own when I was six, which turned into an impressive and diverse almost conservatory experience for me. I had an electric blue baton that I never learned to twirl but played make-believe with, alternating between microphone and teaching pointer.
Can you remember the first piece of art– performance, literary, fine, street–you saw/read that wowed you?
My mom and her friends took me with them to see Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” when it was on Broadway. I was much too young to understand what was going on, but I was fascinated by the vivid imagery in visuals, text and movement, and seeing this kaleidoscope of Black women characters who reminded me so much of my Mom and her friends. My “Aunties” were a vibrant and lively coven of “fairy godmothers,” and I loved thinking of them each as a shade in a complex rainbow. From that day, the poster from the show has always hung in our house and been a constant marker of “home.” When I was about 12, I picked up my Mom’s copy of the book and began a journey of reading and re-reading that stretched well into my 20s. In high school, I did an independent project with my English teacher where I performed a Shange poem as a monologue in a black box theater. Her work definitely sparked my fascination with poetry and performance.
My first poems were very much awkward attempts at embodying Shange’s approach to synesthesia and syntax. That first experience of her choreopoem has been a huge influence on me, both as an artist with a passion for interdisciplinary collaboration, and a woman.
What work do you do in the world that you feel proud of?
I am most proud of my teaching and mentorship work, with people of all ages. Over 20 years of making spaces for others to be creative, and encouraging their process as they explore their own voices and truths. Every day I am floored and inspired by the wonderful things my students are doing in the world. Whether they have chosen to be writers/teachers or not, I’m so grateful to have been part of their journey of self-discovery. I also find that I am a connector. I’m a social person by nature, but it has never been my goal to just “collect people” for myself. My greatest joy is to bring people together, whether that be for a creative project, or to help someone achieve a goal that someone else I know might be a key in the lock for, or simply cooking up a feast to gather around a table for a great meal and conversation. I’m proud of the connections I’m able to make between people to help them manifest their visions.
What’s keeping you embodied right now?
I’m in cocoon mode at the moment, gathering a new set of more left-brain skills to take my efforts to the next level and reach more people. The teacher in me is ready to diversify my reach beyond classroom or workshop experiences, and it’s exciting to contemplate the possibilities of a new frontier to empower others. I’ve hit a sweet spot between my love of writing, teaching and cooking, so I’m now exploring how they can work in harmony to inform my work moving forward.
I’m also working on a narrative cookbook about my family, which is one of the most challenging endeavors I have ever undertaken, but rewarding on many levels. Particularly because I’m now living in the Caribbean far from my family, the project is also a way to have them all around me, in a very palpable way, every day.
Tell us a story.
One afternoon when I was about five, my mother came early to pick me up from Montessori school for a doctor’s appointment. When she got there, it was nap time, and all the lights were off, so she had to tip toe between the rows of cots, pausing to look for my little face, as not to disturb the other sleeping children. Up and down the aisles she went and reached the end, only to discover I was not there. She scanned the room, I was nowhere to be found. She checked the bathroom, nothing there, either. The classroom monitor was almost dozing herself, and my mother had to contain the force with which she shook her awake. Working hard to remain composed, she asked, between clenched teeth, “Where. Is. My. Child?” The monitor smiled up at her and stood, leading her to the teacher’s lounge. My mother pushed open the door, only to find me playing gin rummy, cracking jokes and watching soap operas with the rest of the staff as I dipped graham crackers into my apple juice. “We’re sorry Ms. Pegram. We know she should be taking a nap, but she’s just so funny!”