Rhiannon McGavin on Poetry

Known for her work in poetry and on YouTube, Rhiannon McGavin has made a name for herself at just 19 years old. She isn't just any one thing. She's the 2016 Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and a creative zinemaker. She's an avid Shakespeare enthusiast and a popular YouTuber. She's a published poet and a UCLA student. In essence, Rhiannon is a multifaceted individual whose extensive vocabulary lacks the phrase "I can't." Lithium editor-in-chief discussed the nuances of productivity and poetry with Rhiannon for our May issue.

Lithium: You’re very involved in the poetry community through Get Lit. What was it like to start sharing your material?
Rhiannon: I’m lucky in that I had a heavy performance background because I grew up doing Shakespeare. Around middle school though, I started inserting my own words into the lines, just little phrases here and there, that I felt extremely improved the speeches and monologues. I was the worst! I thought I sounded better than Shakespeare! So that was a natural transition into writing my own stuff. And then, I started making YouTube videos in 2010, way before it was cool; there were a lot of very dorky songs on ukulele and piano, despite me not being able to play either of those instruments or sing. But you have to be really embarrassing at something before being good! After all that dorking around, I had swelling confidence for a 15-year-old and was starting to know what worked in terms of writing. So once I moved from dorky songs to proper poetry, it was easier to write and share it. Sort of. At my first open mic, I got up and cried through the entire poem. It wasn’t even the saddest thing I’d ever written, but just being on the stage and reading original pieces in front of people, the shock will get to you.
In general, I am more confident in my writing than in my emotions. It holds true whenever I speak in public. Even in class, when I raise my hand to talk, my whole body turns bright red. My voice will be clear and I know exactly what I’m saying and all my citations, still blushing though.

Lithium: What would be your advice to young women seeking to create their own poetry?
Rhiannon: Try to write every day, especially if you think it’s bad. Try not to compare your work to others, because everyone has different circumstances and inspirations, and you see what’s published rather than the drafts. Keep a journal. Read as much as you can and keep a log of what you like and dislike about each piece so you can break it down and figure out what you can use for yourself. Continue to cultivate hobbies and skills and friendships outside of poetry. Read Audre Lorde’s essays and listen to the Poetry Magazine’s podcast. Also, this is my paranoia talking, but please be careful what you share online! Plagiarism is a weed.  

Lithium: Honestly, you are one one of my biggest inspirations. Whenever I scroll through your blog, it always seems as though you are in fact the most productive person ever (see: this post). How do you balance so much all at once?
Rhiannon: Ah! Thank you for saying that! I am stressed all the time! I have to prioritize stuff, which is why I’m not always active on social media or YouTube. Making videos is an extra fun thing that I do as long as my studies and work life are fine, and that’s always been my personal rule, for one example. I have a big whiteboard on my desk where I write out everything I have to do that day, because it’s an easy reminder and it feels so good to cross stuff out; I also have a little datebook that I bring everywhere, which is also where I scribble the starts of many poems. It’s helpful to have set times for activities, like I know for sure that I’m going to box from 5-6 and then do homework, you know? But even so, I’m behind on a lot of projects, my inboxes are cataclysmic, I feel guilty about sleeping in, sometimes my hair falls out? I’m constantly finishing assignments like, 10 minutes before class starts. The big turn for me was realizing that beating myself up about not working faster would not actually help me move more efficiently, I’d just feel bad about myself while doing the thing. So I try to breathe, say that it takes the time it takes, and focus. I think my brain alternates from swamp to pinball machine.
A few things really help me calm down, though. Ending a shower with a 3-minute blast of freezing water; avoiding electronics for at least an hour before bed so I can read something non-class related; just sitting outside with a book and a tuna sandwich.

Lithium: You’re a freshman at UCLA! Can you tell us a bit about college life?
Rhiannon: It all smells like jasmine and jacaranda right now, everything’s blooming. I learned how to swim in the pool when I was a toddler and now I do laps on the weekend. The open mic is really welcoming here. I have the top bunk, the dining hall coffee is passable. The whole campus is slanted, so I walk uphill both ways to class. There’s a really active student body and events practically every night, the neighborhood has ice cream shops and museums. I’m happy to have access to academic databases. Aaron Swartz was right.

Lithium: I don’t think I’ll ever relate to a poem more than I do with “Art Class.” What was it like to write that piece and then perform it?
Rhiannon: That really means a lot to me, thank you. I fumble over that piece because it’s so vulnerable. I wrote that piece in 10th grade, which is not very far from middle school, but far enough to blink, you know? Far enough to feel lonely. I think that manifests in the weird tenses of the poem, there’s not much distinction or transition between past-me and present-in-the-piece-me. It was so important for me to link it back to that history of womanhood and poetry, back to Virginia Woolf and Sappho in the quoted lines. The performance online was shot during a round of Brave New Voices in 2014, and I had it memorized but I wasn’t emotionally prepared. I could hardly get through it; I hate to be so raw in front of so many people, I want to have control when I cry. I’m still learning how to write about these things without immediately dropping into that well of fear. I recorded another version last summer, and it was the same deal. What are we if not forever frightened tweens, I guess?

Lithium: Why do you think zines continue to remain so prevalent today?
Rhiannon: Shoot, they’re fun! Everyone at my local Staples knows me because I’ve been in there cussing over a copy machine like, every 2 weeks when I’m printing my LEAF booklets. Whether it’s print or online, zines are accessible to people not just in price point, but because they’re less threatening and refined than mainstream media. Genre-blending! Multimedia! I saw an exhibit at LACMA of Ver Sacrum issues from those whacky Jugendstil modernists, and it reminded me of covers I see today. Rilke wrote in zines!

Lithium: What’s on your reading list this spring?

Rhiannon: Delicious! I’m doing research in Paris for most of the summer so I’m getting in the mood by reading Mavis Gallant’s Paris Notebooks, and the Embrace of Unreason by Frederick Brown. I just finished Quiet Fire, an anthology of Asian-American poetry from 1892-1970, and now I’m looking for full works by Joy Kogawa, May Wong, and Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn. I’m also itching to read Moonglow by Michael Chabon, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris, but those are all pretty new so it takes a minute for the library to get them. Summer is for rereading old favorites, but spring is the time for new books.

You can keep up with Rhiannon on Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr. Be sure to check out her Etsy store as well!

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