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Ursula Rucker, 2018 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview With Poet Ursula Rucker

Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges. Interdisciplinary poet, performer, and recording artist Ursula Rucker spoke to us about the influences that shaped the trajectory of her career, from crucial early advice to collaborating across disciplines. Her recent work includes a 2017 collaboration with sound and installation artist Emeka Ogboh for Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Center-supported Monument Labexhibition. Characterizing her work “along the edge of the terrains of poetry,” Rucker has released five albums and collaborated with a wide range of artists outside the field of poetry, including The Roots, musicians and Pew Fellows Jamaaladeen Tacuma and King Britt, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Clarence Williams III.

What was the first work of art you made that really mattered to you? Did it influence the approach to your work?

Oh, wow. That just gave me a fuzzy feeling.

I think of all my defining moments as kind of important. But I guess if I had to choose one that really kind of catapulted me personally, it was the first poem that I recorded for The Roots. “The Unlocking” really took me out—completely out—of whatever comfort zone I thought I was in. It broke me out of my fear of un-censoring myself. From the moment that I wrote that, I never censored myself again, which has been such an important part of everything I do. When I write, when I perform, when I dream, when I create, when I teach workshops, I invite other people to stop censoring themselves. How are you going to get to the next place if you're holding yourself back?

You’ve collaborated with a range of artists including musicians, photographers, and installation artists. What interests you in collaborating outside the field of poetry/spoken word? What makes an artistic collaboration successful?

First, you have to embrace the possibilities and spirit of collaboration, which a lot of people have difficulty with, especially if they are used to going solo. That was my problem for a while—many, many years ago. Learning how to collaborate, learning how to work with other people has grown my life exponentially.

I had to learn it first with recording collaborations. And then learning to do it with an artist live, and whether that artist is making the music or you're working with another vocalist or a choreographer, you have to step outside slightly of your own way of doing things. You have to learn the art of—not compromise, but a kind of easing up on your ritual a little bit. You don't have to get rid of it, but you have to merge your ritual with somebody else's ritual to make something more. Doing live performances with other artists, it's frightening sometimes.

In a multidisciplinary practice, how do you make sure an artistic idea develops into the right form?

I don't think you really know if it's going in the right direction until you actually do the damn thing. But if you go in with a clear intention and have an organic element in place, just allow the flow. If you are doing it from your heart, I think everything kind of falls into its own place.

It’s so important to really let the organic come in and allow the flow to happen, to kind of get over myself and the control freak part of me. You have your idea and you have your vision, but don’t be so tight with your vision that some magic can’t come in. Something that you've never thought of will present itself as an organic quotient, and you're like, oh no, I can't do that because I'm doing it this way. But you have to allow for those kinds of changes for something really special to happen.

Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?

I am ready to talk about how much I love my city at any given time. The artists that come from here or came from other places and deposited themselves here, who fell in love with this place and created their greatest work or did the most amazing things here—it’s not by accident. I believe it has much to do with the strong indigenous spirit in Philadelphia.

Philly is perfectly imperfect. It’s rough and elegant. We're rough around the edges. And as much as it frustrates me sometimes because it's hard to break through that shell, it’s because we're so protective of ourselves. We have to be. Because it's not easy being here. But all of that mixed in together, it just makes us special. The most successful relationship I’ve ever had is with my city.

How do you think artists can effect social change?

I have always believed—and I continue to believe—that artists are ideally suited to effect change of all kinds in human beings, whether it's emotional change, mental change, or social change. If you take your gift of creativity and you say, “I love what I do, but I want to speak to the people or I want to give a voice to the people and see what happens,” the possibilities are absolutely endless.

Take the open mic events I did at Kensington Storefront, a partnership between Mural Arts Philadelphia and the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. I know Kensington, but I hadn’t been down there in a while, so going in gave me some trepidation. But then I thought, I don't really know until I know. So my first night, I just went and put everything I had into it with Miles Butler, my musician and partner through the whole series.

It ended up that these people, who were going through the darkest stuff I've ever seen up close, were able to crack open for two hours and share and not be afraid to talk, feeling like they were invited in a space where they don't feel invited most of the time. And they accepted us. It's not that we accepted them, because they have their whole lives in place already. It was proof positive of the difference you can make.

In reflecting back to the beginning of your career, what is the most useful advice you ever received?

The advice that changed my life was to speak in your own voice. The poet and recording artist Wadud Ahmad, who is also a lawyer and a longtime friend, came to my first feature night at Zanzibar Blue when I was first starting. I was doing a whole 40-minute performance, and I thought I was going to throw up all over the place. And then I was equally as excited once I did the feature. Afterwards, I went down and sat at the bar. Wadud was sitting at the bar. And it's just me and him, and he said, “You know, I'm really proud of you, but I just want to say one thing. And I hope you don't take it the wrong way. But I feel like you weren't you.”

It crushed me. I was on cloud nine. I had just done my first feature. So for about two weeks, I cried on and off. It was tough. He said I was speaking like I thought I had to be, that I sounded the same as the people I look up to, like my mentor Sonia Sanchez. But we're still friends, and I’ve continuously thanked him through the years. It probably wasn't easy for him to tell me that.  And from that point forward, I never, ever did anything unless it was me, sounded like me, looked like me, felt like me.