Writer and spoken word artist Guyleigh Johnson hails from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Her first book, a poetry collection titled Expect the Unexpected, was published with Pottersfield Press in 2016. Her second book, Afraid of the Dark (Pottersfield Press, 2018), mixes both poetry and prose. In what follows, Johnson discusses her approach to public performances, what she likes about writing in Nova Scotia, her new projects, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and poetry and spoken word in particular?
I have been writing since I was a little girl, I remember the blue and green scribblers for journal time. I also always kept a diary, there was something intriguing about writing down my personal thoughts, dreams or imagination. I didn’t take writing seriously in the terms of writing with a purpose until a close family member died in a car crash that’s when I used it to cope with grief. What drew me to poetry was being able to write whatever I wanted and in some weird way it would still make sense, and not only to me but to other people that could relate. I loved the way poetry told a story and painted the very picture I imagined in my head, I loved the way it sounded and the emotion it gave to the audience, it was personal, vulnerable yet connecting and full of love. I used to watch slam competitions on TV, Eastlink used to have an app I think to watch series and one of them was dedicated to slam competitions I used to watch young girls and boys say things out loud that were uncomfortable and true with rhythm and heart and it made me want to be them.
Your latest book, Afraid of the Dark (Pottersfield Press, 2018), tells the story of its central character, Kahlua Thomas, through both poetry and prose fiction. What attracted you to this hybrid form? Is it something you would want to pursue again?
In Junior High I remember a way we use to practice writing was through short stories, they were always interesting and to the point. When I started to take writing seriously I’ve always wanted to combine the two but I wasn’t sure how to make that happen. After Expect the Unexpected I made it my goal to create a short story and make my character into a writer who wrote poetry so I could get the best of both worlds.
How do you approach public performances of your writing? Do you have any tips for writers who are new to reading or performing their work in public?
I enjoy public performances because they put a voice behind my work and sometimes I think it allows the reader or the listener to understand more and connect. After Expect the Unexpected I actually got a lot of request for an audio book, because people would love to hear me perform the poetry as well. Tips for reading/performing material is to practice, practice, practice because it helps you understand how you sound also what you would change about your piece, sometimes what you write doesn’t necessarily sound good out loud so if you speak it out loud over and over, you can make changes that make sense. Perform whenever you get the chance, because it brings exposure the more people that know about you the more opportunities that will follow you. (It also helps when you’re shy.) Speaking of shy, I am a really shy person (my friends and family always laugh at this because they don’t think it’s true but I am) invite family and friends people that you are comfortable speaking around make them sit in the front row and as you speak every now and again glance at them and it makes you feel less shy. My mom hasn’t missed any of my performances and for the biggest ones where I felt like I would get sick she has been my comfort zone. Find your rhythm when you speak, and talk to the audience like you would your friends, allow them to follow you on your journey of words.
What's great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
Writing in Nova Scotia inspires you because you are exposed to a lot, meeting new people and being a part of new environments give you things to talk about. Sometimes even if you don’t have anyone to talk to and you just walk around and people watch or site see you are able to create and imagine so many stories. Nova Scotia also has a lot of untold heritage which I believe brings depth to your writing.
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?
I don’t remember the first time, but I knew it felt good because I was being compensated for something that I was passionate about and it didn’t feel like work. That’s when I knew it was a gift and something I would pursue and take further. It brought me happiness to write and connect to people, getting paid to do it was just a bonus.
Did you have a mentor when you started writing? What was that relationship like?
I didn’t have a mentor when I started writing and it sucked because I had so many questions and no one that could provide advice, support or encouragement. I didn’t have any writers in my family or anyone that really knew the field to push me in certain directions. Everything I learned was through me and my mom making connections and constantly putting myself out there. Coming from the black community and having a lack of resources or opportunities often makes people compete, or fear change and sharing knowledge. There is a quote that I live by now—“Be who you needed when you were younger.” I always vowed that when I grew up I would mentor and help as many youth as I can with what I could. I always leave the door open when young writers ask me questions or want connections because that’s what our ancestors did—they paved the way so I wouldn’t have to experience some of the things or to the extent that they did and I believe in doing the same for those coming under us—one hand to move forward the other to look back and help another person up.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
Take walks, long baths and listen to music.
Where do you like to get your writing done? Do you have a dedicated space, or do you prefer to move around?
Being a writer it’s hard to have a dedicated space because all day long you’re imagining things. The amount of stories or poems I filter through my head are crazy depending on where I am at I pull out paper I write sentences or key words, sometimes I pull out my phone and leave notes or send texts as reminders. A lot of the time I write in my bed around 3-5 am, I usually wake up every night around that same time, and when I am not praying or manifesting about my life, I am thinking of things to say or stories to tell and I write them down.
What’s the last great book you read?
For 2019 one of resolutions was to read more books and put down social media. Technology is taking over and it makes you think you have less time for things or people that are actually important and when you calculate how much time you spend on social media you realize you could've been doing other things, with that being said my first book of the new year was Worthy of Love by Andre Fenton and if you haven’t read it yet I suggest you do—I don’t want to give away too much because talking about it I get carried away but you won’t regret the choice if you have teenage children buy it for them it’s a life changer.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I am working on two YA novels, as well as another poetry book. I have a children’s book on Viola Desmond that should be released sometime this year. I am also focusing on my blog cleaning it up and pushing new content and trying to take my writing to the next level.