Truth Thomas is a singer-songwriter and poet. He is the founder of Cherry Castle Publishing. His poetry collections include: Party of Black, A Day of Presence, Bottle of Life, and Speak Water, winner of the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry. His poems have appeared in over 100 publications, including The 100 Best African American Poems (edited by Nikki Giovanni).
Literary Juice: As someone who is both a poet and a singer-songwriter, what makes writing poetry different from writing music? How does your background in one influence your composition in the other?
Truth Thomas: Other than distinctions that mark physical differences between writing poetry (perhaps on a notepad, or computer) from the composition of songs on a musical instrument, the creative mindset is not altogether different -- although there are differences. Success in both art forms requires the work of yielding to imagination. That imagination does not exist as an alien in its own body. I am not the first to say that in music, it often takes a long to time to sound like yourself. The same thing is true for a poet. Many times your writing will fail. (I can tell you this from experience.) And sometimes, after much hard work, you will be blessed to succeed. Ideally, whatever you write should be unique, allergic to cliché, and reflect an almost holy reverence to the concision of words. However, when I approach the discipline of songwriting, in contrast to the practice of poetry, I have to be mindful of melodic strength, as well as lyric potency.
Great poems are complete artistic worlds unto themselves, simply because of their lyric crafting. No musical accompaniment is needed for them “to work.” They resonate with renewed meaning with every reading. A layering of themes and inaccessibility is frequently valued. The same craft elements are not required for a song to be great -- nor should they be. Especially, if you are involved in commercial music, the point that a song makes is something that is intended to be immediately accessible. Where prose is often considered antithetical to poetry, fresh prose, with poetic elements is the benchmark of many finely written songs.
Regarding the second part of your question, songwriting taught me to listen well to life, to write honestly about it, and about the importance of playing on time. In the context of writing poems of witness, and honoring the place of rhythm in my poetry, those music lessons continue to carry over. Fundamentally, I am a musician. Poetry is just a new instrument that I have learned to play.
LJ: In 1992, you changed your name from Glenn Edward Thomas to Truth Thomas. Can you give a little history regarding your name, and the part it plays in both your life and art today?
T: Actually, I didn’t completely change my name. I revised it to Truth Glenn Edward Thomas. After that, for spiritual and artistic reasons, I condensed the designation down to Truth Thomas. The inspiration for the shift came in the form a very vivid dream. There is more about that dream that will have to remain a matter only for my pillow to know, but essentially the change was in response to divine prompting for growth.
Glenn Edward Thomas was completely a musician, and that was cool. Truth Thomas is a father, musician, poet, publisher, and many other growing things. Whatever is not growing in life is moving in the direction of caskets. The post ’92 name -- who I am now -- reminds me of the significance of personal reinvention, and it also reminds me of the importance of ongoing growth.
It bears mentioning that to be called “Truth” is not a matter of being particularly candid, either in relationships or in art -- although, understandably, many people tend to think so. I cannot say that I am any more direct, pious, honest, or holy than I have ever been. However, my determination to be a drum major for those qualities has certainly been more keen since the name change.
LJ: I’ve noticed that race plays a significant role in your poetry. As an African-American, have you ever been faced with prejudices in your personal life or at any time in your career as a writer? In what ways have these prejudices influenced you as a poet, and how were you able to overcome them?
T: I write about all aspects of my life, which, as a black man, includes the subject of racism. To be sure, the unresolved legacy of slavery, and its byproduct of ever-expanding race-based hatred, impacts our nation profoundly. The cold fact of that bigotry is as significant to the American experience as was a much storied iceberg to the Titanic. To ignore the reality that race plays in the cultural currents of the United States is not a luxury that I can afford.
Yes, I have been called names far from divine by skinheads on the street. And yes, as it pertains to my career, I’ve have had poems that deal with race rejected by many “so called” mainstream publications -- although they would never admit to this. However, when you take in the thematic scope of what many iconic poetry journals routinely publish, the notable absence of almost any address of racism -- or writers of color -- seems far from accidental. The white gaze in the editorial world often expects writers of color to either be colorless in their literary work, or write “feel good” poems about race issues that do not challenge the status quo. The pressure to be a "poetic good negro," in order to get published, is not foreign to me. In that way, racism routinely -- albeit unsuccessfully -- tries to repress my voice and make my humanity invisible.
I confront all adversity first by prayer, and then by positive creative action. As long as I know I am writing well, and with forthrightness, modern day Jim Crow manifestations give me little pause. Some people climb mountains and write about vistas of nature with startling beauty. Those writers have great value and I applaud them. I choose to write about the black experience in America, which continues to confront mountains of "un-trumped" hatred. Poems that document our problematic landscape also have great value -- and I know this. Consequently, I have learned to applaud myself when no one else will.
LJ: Your midrashic poetry collection, Speak Water, which has won the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry, is described as being “framed by both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible…” Why incorporate the Bible in this collection? In what ways does the Scripture help communicate the message in your poetry?
T: Parallelisms, rich imagery, and vivid figures of speech abound in both the Old and New Testaments. Acrostics are striking in Psalms. Beatitudes in Matthew resonate with anaphora. In a sense, the Bible is a centuries enduring, transformative, bestselling book of poetry. As a writer, you learn to study the masters and to incorporate the lessons learned into your own work in order to grow. I studied the Bible as inspiration for writing Speak Water precisely for that reason -- and as a matter of personal transformation.
One of the key themes in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament, is the idea of overcoming what is disagreeable in the spirit of love. When I considered the composition of Speak Water, I wanted to express similar “overcoming” themes, commenting specifically on racism, sexism, and many other American social ills, by way of midrashic improvisation. Arguably, framing poems in Scripture imbues pieces with a bridge to the familiar that draws readers in and amplifies their impact.
LJ: You are the founder of Cherry Castle Publishing. Can you tell us about the mission of your company, and what sets it apart from other publishers?
T: Cherry Castle Publishing embraces the work of all people. We are actively engaged in reflecting literary art that mirrors the unfiltered social and political state of contemporary America. What also distinguishes us is that we esteem the work of writers of color, political poets, and writers committed to social justice concerns.
Along those lines, next year, we will be publishing Songs for a Passbook Torch: A Nelson Mandela Poetry Anthology -- which is the first anthology of its kind that I am aware of. This project is international in scope (and I encourage all your writer-readers to submit their work for publishing consideration by simply emailing pieces to: email@example.com). The reverence for social activism embodied in the anthology is indicative of the overall spirit of our press.
LJ: What is the best advice you’ve ever received from someone on how to succeed in your art?
T: Work hard. Read, study, and listen to the work of the masters. Take what you can use, but keep your own voice. Practice daily. Write daily. Don’t compare yourself with other artists. Be confident in your own uniqueness. Don’t be afraid to take risks in your work. And above all, cultivate your talents fully. The winning ticket of these efforts is yours alone to redeem.
Poetry by Truth Thomas
Publisher: Cherry Castle Publishing
About this Book: "Truth Thomas' Speak Water won the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry. It chronicles the human quest to conquer hate with love, a grand and piercing collection of midrashic poetry, written from an African-American perspective. It is framed by both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as each poem references some aspect of every book contained in Scripture. This homecoming work, Thomas' third full collection of verses, is the first to be published in the United States, and reflects breakthrough poetry from one of America's finest writers."