The Spoken Word

Tiffany Paynter

Tiffany Paynter describes herself, in the words of feminist writer and Civil Rights activist Audre Lorde, as ‘a black lesbian woman poet warrior.’ The artist, who teaches poetry and creative writing, exhibited God Gap in the 2018 Bermuda Biennial What We Share.

The spoken word poem, which Tiffany performed at the BNG every week throughout the duration of the exhibition, was a response to the repeal of the gay marriage act that took place in Bermuda the previous year.

In the poem Tiffany uses the emotions that it conjured to examine “the Why where science ends and God begins.” She describes it as a medium through which she was able “to weld my joy to my pain and my love to my anger in such a way that made clear that I am a whole and hallowed human.”

In the same year, Tiffany presented the BBC documentary Bermuda’s Change Of Heart for the BBC World Service which investigates the dichotomies between our Christian and LGBTQ+ communities that led to Bermuda becoming the first country to repeal gay marriage.

Ahead of what should have been the second Bermuda Pride parade this weekend (cancelled to help prevent the spread of Covid-19), we caught up with Tiffany to discuss her experience as a gay woman in Bermuda, how the writing of Audre Lorde shaped her and how “when you sprinkle in craft with insight something powerful emerges.”

BNG: In your artist statement for the 2018 Bermuda Biennial you say that God Gap was inspired by Audre Lorde and the “comfort and discomfort experienced in her poems”. When did you discover her work and how has she impacted your own?

TP: When Lorde asked, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own…” I felt like she was speaking directly to me. Her voice felt like it was mine; sounding out itself from the inside out. It was almost like a new me was being spoken into existence.

I was 18 or 19 when I discovered Audre Lorde in my first year of university at Queen’s. I had planned to become a lawyer and took a Women’s Studies (now Gender Studies) class and one of the assigned readings was Lorde’s Sister Outsider. After I read her essays, something inside me began to shift.

She was fearless, poetic and introspective. Lorde weaved together the spiritual, political and personal in a way that made her truth irresistible. I started to scrutinise my ideas of what life is, was and should be…to hold myself up against the light and delve deeply into what was truly me as opposed to the idea of me I had created to survive. It is because of Lorde that when I write, I strive for that same fearlessness in unveiling my inner and outer worlds.

Audre Lorde photographed by Robert Alexander for Getty Images .

BNG: You performed God Gap at the Bermuda National Gallery every week during the 2018 Bermuda Biennial. What was that experience like?

TP: Despite having the poem memorized, I was nervous every time. Sometimes when I’d get to the gallery there would be people waiting to hear me perform. At other points, I’d just start and unsuspecting people in the gallery would be startled and gather around or stop where they stood and give their attention.

It was always better when people would engage after. The best moment by far was on June 6th. I remember that date because my partner was waiting on the City Hall steps to give me the news that our Surpreme Court had struck down the ruling banning same-sex marriages. It’s hard to explain but that day the words felt more alive to me and I performed that day with so much joy in my heart.

Click the image above to listen to God Gap by Tiffany Paynter.

BNG: You have described spoken word poetry as an invitation to listen and once said that ideas alone will not change the world, we have to feel our way free. Why is spoken word poetry so powerful?

TP: I don’t think all spoken word poetry is powerful. But great poetry is powerful. I think all great poetry comes from a place or space of seeing or insight. When you sprinkle in craft and mnemonic devices with insight, something powerful emerges. Power isn’t always a tidal wave. Sometimes power is subtle, like the pull of the moon at high tide. Poetry is powerful when it reaches into us and bridges that feeling of disconnection or separateness.

Nothing really reaches as deeply as sound. Spoken word poetry is imbued with this extra potency because sound is potent. That’s why so many creation stories start with it! Whether you believe that Aum was the primordial sound, or a ‘Big Bang’ created the world, or that God said “Let there be light”, there is something to be said about the power of word sounded out.

BNG: In your 2011 TED x Bermuda talk Dare To Dream you perform Daddy, an impactful piece which describes the breakdown in your relationship with your father when you came out. What has your experience been as a gay woman in Bermuda?

TP: My experience at first was very difficult because my parents kicked me out of the house. At 19 I was and felt homeless for a short period of time, before a gay couple took me in. I didn’t actually come out to my parents, my older sister outed me. I felt betrayed both by her and my parents for many years. It was rough at first, not because of how society at large viewed me or treated me, but because of my own family’s limiting beliefs and homophobia. Overtime, after several arguments and difficult conversations, stronger bridges were rebuilt over all those burnt bridges and I feel closer to my family now than I ever have.

BNG: Your 2018 BBC documentary Bermuda’s Change Of Heart looks at the strains between the Christian and LGBTQ+ communities in Bermuda that led to the repeal of the gay marriage act in 2017. Although this has since been overturned, the government plans to take it to the Privy Council. How can we overcome these differences?

TP: Let’s first define this ‘we’ as humans. It seems like as long as ‘we’ humans have lived on this planet we have created and invested in both subtle and devastating ways of making some human lives more valuable than others. Throughout every century, since before we began counting centuries, we humans have found creative justifications to oppress others.

Most often the oppressed become oppressors and while we feel the heel of oppression on our own neck we fail to ask ourselves, “Whose neck am I standing on?”. It’s a special kind of insanity that we pass from generation to generation, just like we pass down glaucoma. This inability to see. To see our contribution to the same problems we claim we wish would change. We agree to divide ourselves. Muslim – Hindu. Bermudian – Non-Bermudian. Straight – Gay. Black – White. Man – Woman. Rich – Poor.

This need to divide, define and place value on, is so deeply entrenched in human culture that we destroy our planet and ourselves. This is what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we’ll continue to do for as long as we avoid or postpone profound, continuous and enduring self-reflection.

The Bermuda Pride parade captured by @flyinghighmedia via @bermudapride.

BNG: Last year saw Bermuda’s first Pride Parade, 50 years after the Stonewall uprising first sparked the gay rights movement. What was your experience of it?

TP: It was one of the happiest moments in my life because my younger brother and my niece walked with me. Don’t get me wrong the colours, music and energy made it an amazing event. About 5,000 more people showed up than I thought would be there! But if I had walked with 6,000 strangers without a single family member, it would not have meant as much to me. I love my family and I’ve always believed that part of showing love is showing up and my brother showed up. He was a long way out of his comfort zone and that is love. Love needs more parades.

BNG: 6,000 people turned up for the inaugural Pride parade, which equated to 1 in 10 people in Bermuda. What impact has it had on gay rights and the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in Bermuda?

TP: I imagine that leading up to the parade, a lot of families were having difficult conversations around the dinner table and I think lasting acceptance and healing begins in conversation. For instance, leading up to the parade, I witnessed my friend and her mother have a difficult discussion about the other’s version of events surrounding her coming out. And although there were still painful memories and disagreement I felt a shift in her mom. On the day of the parade her mother, father, and brother were there in matching outfits. Her dad even donned a rainbow cape! The impact of that is beautiful and rare.

BNG: What are you working on currently?

TP: At the moment I’m working on my website and I’m trying to memorise a new poem called Ode to Kairos Lover of Dinosaurs. It’s a poem about my godchild and how she sees the world versus how the world will see her. Stay tuned for both of them.