January 29, 2016
First things first, Elisabet Velasquez wants you to get her name right. There is no “z” or “h” in Elisabet. Stop trying to assimilate her. Just think of your very Puerto-Rican mother calling you inside after the street lights come on except you miss the memo and she gotta walk down 5 flights of stairs to get you. E-leesah-bet. Deliberate and exactly how it sounds.
Elisabet “Leesah” Velasquez is a name reverberating against the tongue of just about any Curator in the Spoken Word NYC community. So high in demand is she, it took rearranging our schedules 3 times before I was able to get a few words in with the wordsmith christened Sick Prose. Between interviews with VIVALA, performances at Don Coqui and rehearsals for Angy Abreu’s No Room for the Broken, Leesah has been a busy woman.
Off the strength of her dynamic performance presence and status updates, Elisabet has made a name for herself. Her social media pages are full of anecdotes and punchlines and vulnerability. There are no books. Yet. No literary journals. Yet. There is word of mouth, Instagram reposts, Snap chat, and Facebook shares. Self-marketing is what Elisabet does and though she is a seasoned performance poet, she is the queen of reinvention.
Why Sick Prose?
I have a few people who have been following my work since I began performing in 2009 who know me as Sick Prose. At the time, I thought it was the perfect name to describe how I grew up. Everyone in my immediate family was sick, mental illness runs long and deep in my family and in order to maintain some sanity, all I did was write to escape that environment. It also sounded really cool, like I was dope or some shit.
When was the first time you performed your poetry?
The first time I ever performed was at the Nuyorican Poets Café on a Wednesday night. The host was and still is Jive Poetic. I had been writing poetry since I was 9. Inspired by my older sister who kept a Diary about her love life. That shit was gold BTW. Taught me everything I needed to know about boys. LOL She was my first favorite author. At that point, I too started writing my life down. I remember seeing an episode of Def Poetry and that was my first exposure to the concept of performance poetry. I was like “Dude, you mean I can go say what I have been writing down all of these years out loud and there is a crowd that wants to hear that?” I was excited to learn about The Nuyorican Poets Café and the space that allowed me to discover my voice, to hear my own story out loud and allowed me to listen to the stories of so many other people who otherwise wouldn’t have a space to discover their voices. It was magical. It still is.
Who are your mentors?
I am a lucky girl in the sense that I have many mentors. To be real, I have mentors that don’t even know they are my mentors. I like to watch how people shine; it inspires me to search for my own light. In 2009, when I started performing, Jive Poetic would continuously encourage me to show up to Wednesday night slams. I’d win the slams and was fortunate enough to make the Nuyorican Poets café. I feel extremely blessed to have been coached by the incomparable Mahogany L. Browne. She was the first person who sat me down and walked me through the world of both performance and written poetry. I always say that her and Jive were really the first people to believe in my writing, I think even before I did. When I made the Nuyorican National Slam team in 2009, Mahogany did not accept mediocre, not from her self and certainly not from the people in her circle. This lesson has stayed with me in my writing. I am constantly in “Nope, do better” mode. Recently, I have been fortunate enough to have Rich Villar (who has to be one of the most intelligent people I know) so graciously take me under his wing and guide me in all things poetic form, context, history etc. Working with him has made me even more aware of the reasons behind my writing I am definitely more introspective in my writing because of his guidance.
What inspires you?
I am mainly inspired by emotion. By womanhood. By sex. By love. By the longing to love and to be loved and the eternal search for that love. I don’t think I will ever stop searching for that.I also have a special place in my heart for human flaws, a body with too many or not enough curves, a mind with too many or not enough thoughts.I have a soft spot for mistakes and the extreme ends of things. I don’t do mediums. There is Love or Hate. Utter joy or Inconsolable Anger. Gluttony or Starvation. You get the point.
I talk a lot about love, about sex, about the body. I like to explore these the most. I grew up in a religious home and all of these subjects were taboo, they were especially taboo because I was a woman. I was a Latina woman and so the man usually gets to talk about sex, and it was as if women were to have no other desire than for their children and husband. As I grew up, I found I had many desires. So I make these themes a part of my regular conversation with myself in my poems. Every time I write a poem I learn something new about myself.
I notice various elements used throughout your work ie; water, fire, wind and natural disasters. What are the correlations between the elements you describe and your writing?
They are all tied to my penchant for human emotion and the body. Whether we’ve drowned in our feelings, scorched the memory of a lover to ash, or are just breezing through life, we have all been fluid, flame, and gust at one point of our lives.
How do you feel about labels?
I have a love/hate relationship with labels. I think labels can be empowering or harmful, depending on how they are utilized. I identify as a woman of color, as a Latina, as a foul-mouthed Puerto Rican girl from Brooklyn, as a Mother, the list of labels can go on. I think it is important to understand that Labels do not define the individual. The individual defines the label. I tell you who I am; you don’t get to tell me who I am.
Are there any books that you reference as inspiration when writing?
One of the first books that made me realize that I had a different voice than the voices of those portrayed in the literature that I was reading in school was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I was in High School when my teacher assigned it to us and then had us write our own stories. It was a very liberating moment for me in my writing process; I began to pay close attention to my own life and how important that story was. Nowadays I am focused on reading works of literature of writers of color. I am inspired by my peers and their stories.
You were born and raised in Bushwick, Brooklyn. How has that influenced who you are today?
Psh. Man. Listen. The other day someone asked me where I grew up and I said Bushwick and they said “Oh wow, an original?” Being from Bushwick in the 90’s meant you didn’t take shit from nobody. It meant that your mother didn’t sing you to sleep, the gunshots did, it meant your neighbor was the most dangerous drug dealer on the block, but you didn’t see danger whenever he bought your moms groceries at the end of the month when her funds were low. It meant you found a way to survive because that’s what life was, what do we do today to make sure we’re okay tomorrow. That mentality is what I live by. Bushwick taught me resiliency and clap-back.
How do you feel about the gentrification in the boro? Does this affect your art in any way?
Gentrification is a nice word for colonization. I wrote about it a recent piece called New Brooklyn.
What is the Artists social responsibility?
To improve the condition of humanity.
Have you ever felt marginalized when reading or performing?
If you know me, you know a few things, I’m a loud muthafucka, and I am not the most refined individual. I am proud of both of these things. They define who I am as an individual. They speak to how I grew up. A lot of my writing lacks academia and some may even say proper form. I entered a space once, where I immediately did not feel welcome, simply based on who I was and what my art sounded like. I no longer go where I do not feel welcome. I’m still a loud muthafucka.
How important is community support when creating?
Man. Listen. Support your friends. Be loud about the accomplishments of your peers. We all we got.
What is your creative process like?
I don’t even know. It changes so much. I must have the like ADHD of the creative processes.
What are your writer goals? Now? Future?
If we talking about now goals? I met those. I meet that goal every time I get off a stage and someone says “Your poem really did something for me today.” I am constantly humbled and thanking God for words. Future Goals: I just want to live my life writing. That’s all. Live to write and write to live.
What will your legacy be?
First – I hope my legacy will be my children and the way they live their lives, fearlessly, and without restriction.
Second- The impact that I hope that my words will have is that it will help everyone who ever came from nothing find their something. I found my something through writing. If my pockets emptied out tomorrow, my heart would still be full.
What advice would you give to a feature writer?
WRITE THAT SHIT DOWN. Stop asking yourself if your voice is good enough. Read. Everything. Watch. Everyone. Do not let anyone else’s standards define you.
What was your biggest fail as a writer, performer?
I do not have failures. Even my worst moments are successes because I tried.
What was your biggest triumph?
Yo. Every time I hit a stage and read some deeply personal shit, that is a triumph! However, something that really makes me feel like I have triumphed as a performer/writer is coming up soon, I can’t really disclose those details yet. Stay Tuned!
You speak a lot of mental illness and mother/daughter relationships in your writing/poetry. What are some of the stigmas you hope to tackle?
I hope to start a dialogue about what mental illness looks like in the Latino Community. What does it feel like at home? Not talking about it has affected me for YEARS. I am finally speaking up. My sister has Schizoaffective disorder. I have a developmentally delayed brother and sister, I have a brother with Asperger’s syndrome, and my mom, well she has her own poem – Voces. Look for it in the book. I grew up around crazy and that was my normal. I hope that more people start talking about mental health and how important that is.
Do you ever have to censor yourself to avoid offending family/friends/past suitors?
I stopped doing that shit last year. NOPE. NO MAS. Now? I’m like you don’t like it? You ain’t gotta hear me. But you know what? I gotta hear me. I gotta hear all of the things I DIDN’T say to avoid making someone uncomfortable. Silence is a loud muthafucka.
What’s next for Elisabet?
I have a Chapbook being exclusively and only released at my next performance at The Nuyorican Poets Café on February 19, 2016. 10pm! It is the book before THE BOOK. So it is definitely limited edition, get there at 8:30 to get online to get a seat. (Maria, you have the exclusive rights to this announcement.) Also, I have another announcement but this one is more cryptic. All I am allowed to say right now is POR FAVOR – people should save these dates – July 30 and 31st. That is next.The rest, well, the rest is up to fate and hustle.
Where can people connect with you?
I love messages. I do not bite. I am the warmest winter.
*all photos property of Elisabet Velasquez