“And that’s the thing about the poetry world, there isn’t one set thing you’re supposed to be doing.” -Kirwyn Sutherland
I met Kirwyn Sutherland in 2014 when I first entered the Philly poetry slam scene. I was immediately fascinated by his stage presence and the intensity of his work as well as how he incorporated science into his writing. As I got to know Kirwyn more, I found out that he used so much science in his poetry because this man was an actual scientist. Fun fact: Kirwyn and my mom, who is also a scientist, used to be coworkers. Small world. A year later I would also have the pleasure of working with Kirwyn on a National Poetry Slam team where, ironically, we wrote a piece together about our moms.
When I sat down to talk with Kirwyn, the first thing I asked was what his titles were. “Poet. Probably something weird like, superhero activist. Basically a bunch of things that say I am against all things and people that are against black people,” he replied, “and probably something like scientist...or something like that.” I appreciated that while his poetry and activism were at the forefront of his identity, Kirwyn didn’t fail to acknowledge the scientist in him as well. I always found it interesting that, unlike most of my poet friends who are typically educators or study the humanities, Kirwyn worked in a field completely unrelated to his art. I wondered how these two worlds fit together in his life? How do they feed and, possibly, starve each other? How does this poet make a living?
Currently, Kirwyn is working as a Clinical Data Coordinator for a company that oversees clinical trials. “Basically what I do is look at data all day and make sure it’s free of error, fraud, all that stuff.” Mostly what the company works on now is small stuff like acne and skin care trials, making sure the drugs/products are flaw free so they can move to the next step with the FDA. This career path has fed his art in a way because studying and working in a predominantly white field has given him plenty of writing material. It has also given Kirwyn, what he calls, the “privilege” of being able to make enough money to live comfortably while also working on his craft. Which, unfortunately, not all artist can do.
“For a time after I left my job like...last year, I wanted to try my hand at being a full time poet. So that’s really when I was scheduling a lot of features, I sent out a lot of inquiries to universities and different places. Do I feel like I could make enough off that to pay bills? Yes, if I really really REALLY worked it; if I stretched myself to capacity, yeah. It would be bill to bill, ya know, until I can get to a point where I’m doing a university every week or every month. But I think for me, I’m so committed to making the poem I want to make, above all else, and the point where I’m making a poem to get more money is the point where I stop doing it. So I really need that process to be as pure as possible”
Kirwyn and I spent some more time talking about the threat of compromise that comes with deciding to be a full time artist, poets we know who have managed to rise above that as well as poets who have become exploitative of certain communities in order to make a living. “I don’t want to get to a point where I’m like Ok, gotta pay these bills so I guess I gotta do this type of poem, but I think I strike a pretty good balance of touching a feature here and there,” and allowing clinical research to be the primary source of income. Of course, any poet would love to make a living doing what they love without compromising the integrity of their art but, when we got to the real heart of the problem, there isn’t enough money readily available to just be an artist and do it honestly.
The bulk of my conversation with Kirwyn was about the poetry community in Philadelphia and it’s lack of resources, both financial and otherwise. We talked about how difficult it is to even find information for funding opportunities or writing workshops, and when you do finally find them, they’re mostly all in New York. Kirwyn has even traveled to New York to attend workshops including Cave Canem and Poets House. We also talked about micro poetry communities within Philadelphia that have money and resources, that take up real estate and even gentrify neighborhoods but are insular and do not serve the whole community. In 2015 Kirwyn and a few other Philly poets created The Mission Statement, a writing workshop series for Black poets, as a way to “develop sort of an infrastructure in Philly for adult poets of color.”
“A lot of people go out to the open mics, they go and they say their poem and it may be good or it may not be good. And I think they have a yearning to get better, but when there’s no lane for that it’s easy for them to attach themselves to fame. Like, I want the feeling of people clapping, not necessarily the feeling of writing a good poem. And I feel like when you introduce the workshops and the lectures and different things like that, then it shifts that perspective to I want to write a good poem, and I do want people to receive it well, but first I want to write a good poem and I want to be able to process my emotions in a way that I’m really proud of the work.”
Coming out of college as an artist, there is a lot of discussion about working a regular 9-5 to pay bills and doing your art on the side. I’ve always been resistant towards this idea, but after talking to Kirwyn I can see both the downsides and merits of this compromise. In some ways this alternative can feel like a concession while in other ways it can be a necessity to keeping your art as honest as possibly. It shouldn’t have to be that way though. I believe that art is a way to build community and what I really took away from my conversation with Kirwyn is that our community, specifically in Philly, is in desperate need of information, resources, and funding. In figuring out what I want to do with my life I feel that I have a responsibility to be of service to my community and the artists within it specifically in that way.