Bianca Amira Zanella is the Poet-in-Residence at Phoenix Books Rutland and host of an international monthly open mic. Her poems have most recently appeared in The Artful Mind, The Rutland Herald, The Mountain Troubadour, and The Reverie. In 2020, Bianca founded The Paper Poet, now offering healing poetic experiences to anyone experiencing suffering and continues to perform around the United States and, virtually, abroad. We interviewed Bianca for The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, below are excerpts from the interview.
James Morehead: What is it about poetry that has attracted you to the art form?
Bianca Amira Zanella: “Wonderful beginning question. Poetry is my natural state. ‘Meaning making’ is a natural state for humans. That’s how I understand the world. Poetry, and the ambiguity in understanding poetry, allows me to create connections that I don’t think any other art form has allowed me to.”
James: I first met you at the monthly Phoenix Books Virtual Poetry Open Mic, which features thanks to COVID, poets from around the world. What have you learned about running a successful open mic? And being an effective host?
Bianca: “Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity! I created the open mic in the town where I live, Rutland, Vermont, on stolen Abernathy land, years ago because I wanted to create community around poetry, and to share my love of poetry. When the pandemic began, shifting virtually was natural. I think many of us did that. The idea of creating community is always at the core. For me, it’s one of my major values that really gives my life purpose. I think the success that I have been able to maintain, when people may be engaging with Zoom fatigue, is my authenticity to bridge people, and to connect people from around the world. Creating that community where we all feel safe and appreciated and expressing some of our most vulnerable work.”
James: What have you learned about getting the word out about your virtual open mics, having people stumble on them as I did, what’s been effective?
Bianca: “I have an amazing team behind me with Michelle and everyone with Phoenix Books. As the Poet-in-Residence I get to focus on the poetry and hosting. Most of the marketing is done by Michelle. I’m really lucky and privileged in that we partnered with Eventbrite really early on. We use their ‘poetry open mic’ tag and I think just having the event on that platform makes it easy to search for. I’m a non-fuss type of person, so having things very direct and simple to find, and not having a complicated sign up process. People who come to the open mic sign up via chat, or by waving at me through the Zoom. I think the simplicity of it helps people connect and stay connected.”
James: What have you learned from the poets that you’ve been able to meet from all over the world through your open mics?
Bianca: “I just love the variety of voices. Hearing, for instance, the Philippines poet who has such a cadence. His voice is so dramatic and theatrical, and you are really brought along with the story of the poem. I just love learning from different styles like that and just hearing how people have turned inward through the pandemic, and then turned outward through their writing and sharing.
“I’ve learned so much about resilience throughout the open mic. People are pretty amazing and that gives me lots of hope. I don’t always feel confident in our humanity, so learning from the other poets sharing their work and being able to be fully present gives me optimism.”
James: Let’s switch to your writing. What’s your process for turning an idea into a fully formed poem?
Bianca: “I would say every poet probably has a similar answer in that it depends! There are days, I think similar to you, where you wake up in the middle of the night and it’s 4 am and you pull out a pen and paper, or your phone, and you have to jot down the idea before it leaves you, and then there are those other days where you have just a line that you work with.
Poetry is an oral tradition, one of the oldest art forms. I actually do a lot of my writing using speech-to-text on long isolated walks by myself. I have one line in my head that has stuck and then I am just talking to myself over and over again with that line and then it becomes another line and another line. And then I get a flow going. And then I’m moving, I’m shaking. I’m just recording when I’m writing. I come from spoken word and I feel like a lot of poets who come from the slam or spoken word community tend to do this.
“I started when I was a kid. My father got me an old school tape recorder so that I could record my pieces and my ideas, so that I wouldn’t lose them, and that’s transitioned into how I write now. I don’t do a ton anymore on physical paper, although my friend Aaron got me a typewriter, which I have really been enjoying as a challenge to slow me down. I think ‘write in the moment’ transcribing is almost a different genre or a different mood.
“My typewriter poems feel very different than my slam pieces that I speech-to-text and then edit. If I have a notebook, my poems are much more meditative and slowed down because I can’t keep up with my pen.”
James: Tell me a little bit about your experience as Poet-in-Residence at Phoenix Books, Rutland. In addition to the open mic you’ve also organized events including Poetry Downtown Rutland which I participated in. And, in general, what is the role of independent bookstores in communities?
Bianca: I feel independent bookstores are the heart of communities. I’ve worked with Phoenix Books for nearly six years. I was right there from when they opened up. We saw community support financially when we were looking for initial funding. We’re stronger than ever now.
“Being Poet-in-Residence for a local independent bookstore is just amazing. I get to do all of the poetry recommendations, and I also get to give spontaneous poems to people when they would like one, which is one of my favorite things to do. Creating that sense of community around my open mic and giving people an opportunity to just share has been incredible. The project that you mentioned, where we posted over 70 poems around downtown, was my idea to do a pop-up poetry path. I took the idea from Monpelier here in Vermont.
“One of my mentors, David Mook, does Poetry Downtown Poultney Vermont, where I used to live, and so taking those concepts and evolving it into a pop-up poetry path around town where it really got to be entangled with our sculpture trail brought it to life and bridged poetry with our artwork and murals around downtown.
“I hope to do more poetry projects for my community in this role.”
James: I think it’s a great idea and I’m going to replicate it next April in Dublin, California in my role as Poet Laureate. Through The Paper Poet, you offer poetry services for the community. What have you learned about the healing power of writing and reading poetry?
Bianca: “I think for me poetry must change you somehow. I think it was Wallace Stevens who said ‘In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.’
“Poetry to me really is that love. When I think about poetry, and healing, it’s really about that self love. It is the love that turns inward which gives us a moment of healing through the writing. It’s such a release. I’m sure you can relate to this as well, having read some of your work. It’s a visceral release out of the body. The body keeps the score, there’s trauma in there, and to let it out we feel alive. And the writing of it, even more alive, in the sharing of our work, when we are heard, and when we feel seen; poetry changes me and and and I think I have a certain willingness to let go of who I am every day.
“But I’m also not afraid of change. If I’m accepting poetry as this vehicle of changing every element, expectation of language, of truth, of myself, poetry has to change me. I have to be willing to let go and I think that’s where the healing can really come in, and shutting those layers that no longer serve us, and allowing one’s imagination to adjust to the strangeness of living in a new skin the next day.”
You can hear Bianca reading and discussing an original poem on the full episode of The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.