By Steven T. Licardi
Bri Onishea is one of those poets you never see coming. I met her at a local band show; we had a mutual college friend. She had previously contacted me expressing an interest in becoming involved with the Long Island poetry scene, but I had never actually spoken to her face to face. It turned out we lived a few blocks over from each other in the same town and both graduated from Suffolk County Community College the same year. The first time I heard her read was at the Walt Whitman Birthplace as part of the Generation Y Poets Showcase. She was awkward. She was unsteady. But she didn’t need to be – her poetry was a powerhouse of emotion, imagery, and message, delivered in a soft, take-it-or-leave-it kind of voice. I was instantly enthralled.
Bri, a recent graduate of SUNY Geneseo, brings a fresh eclectic flare and gentle sarcasm to her work. Her Irish and Native American roots offer a unique view. The first poem I heard of hers dealt with Egyptian mythology, revealing a deep fascination while relating it to a deeper desire to live righteously. As I interviewed her, however, I was surprised to learn that poetry, for her, wasn’t always so intimate.
When asked how she first got into the craft, she told me;
“Strangely enough, poetry and I had this odd love/hate romance going on for a while….I think what threw me off about poetry when I was younger is that it seemed like what was most sought after and admired by my peers and teachers was a conglomeration of intelligent-sounding words with some imagery thrown in for fun. It wasn’t accessible or relatable.”
For most of her adolescents and early adulthood, she considered herself more of a prose writer. “Even as recently as three years ago, poetry and I were still waging this type of internal battle.” Things began to shift after seeing Buddy Wakefield perform as part of his Night Kite Revival Tour at Geneseo. She realized that poetry could be so much more than just words on a page. “I wanted to go out and change the world that night. But then I’d find myself in my writing classes trying to define what poetry was.”
What struck me early on in my friendship with Bri is her brash, unwavering critique of poetry in general. This is something I feel gives her work a welcoming edge. She illustrated this when recalling a poem from one of her undergraduate classes. “There was this one ‘poem’ we looked at in particular that was simply the word ‘lilac’ written out over and over so that the letters formed flowers. [Concrete poetry, I digress.] To me, that’s not poetry, that’s a damn drawing!” This, coming from a poet who blew me away the first time I heard her, was refreshing and humbling to hear. “We had a long discussion in that class about whether poetry was simply poetry based on whether the author defined it as such. It seemed pretty arbitrary to me. At least prose was more clear-cut.”
One of Bri’s biggest paradigm shifts came when she met Cori Winrock, one of her professors at Geneseo and a prominent poet herself. “She was young, and hip, and creative, and I was intrigued enough to experiment. She had us create jam words, made us write poems from the last line backwards, encouraged us to ‘write ourselves scared’ and to ‘imagize everything.’”
But her final push towards pursuing poetry performance came tragically when a close friend of hers died unexpectedly last year. “I had trouble focusing; as an obsessive person by nature, I kept thinking about him, thinking about life and death, and all I could really write were these snippets of lines and images to convey how I felt.” The musician Frank Turner, her friend’s personal favorite, also became a source of inspiration. “His music is all about seizing the day, carpe diem, rah-rah-rah, and I loved how honest and open he was. I knew I wasn’t in a position where I could just sit around and waste time anymore, I needed to go out and create on a grander scale, touch people, meet people, be involved in something.”
When asked about her influences, Bri is quick to answer with song lyrics. “There’s a lyric from a Something Corporate song: ‘I met a girl who kept tattoos for homes that she had loved/ If I were her, I’d paint my body until all my skin was gone.’ Some days I wish I could make my body an easel, so I could go off-the grid crazy, paint my body with every line or lyric I’ve ever wanted to pay homage to, wrapped around beautiful spiraling henna designs, use words as a sort of mood ring.” She also draws inspiration from light, shadows, textures, and color, which clearly feed the beautiful imagery that infests her work. They seem to instantly instill a sense of synesthesia.
This became clear when I asked her if she could choose one line from a poem of hers that she felt best captivates her style and persona. She offered me this gem: “’Temporary’ has a sherbet lemon flavor that lingers on the back of my hippocampus. I’ll return to this one day, a bittersweet candy memory.”
One of my favorite questions to ask fellow poets is why they do what they do; what is it that draws them to write poetry. “Why poetry?” she reflects. “Because I can’t stop, I’m not half bad at it, and it seems to speak to people. I truly believe that some things are a compulsion, not a choice.”
This straightforward way of speaking also sets her work apart. It has an air of blue-color innocence, as if spoken from the mouth of someone who is just trying to pay their bills and keep their head above water. Her poetry is poetry for non-poets. I think it is a reflection of where she has been and her personality in general. Amid such natural flowery speech – separated by long pauses where she tries to collect her thoughts – the randomness of her personality shows through. “I’m in love with Sarah Kay,” she says, “for reals. Like, I feel pretty jipped that I’m not Sarah Kay.” Her sincerity is remarkable, even for a poet.
Bri Onishea is a relative newcomer to the poetry scene, but whereas others have only gotten their feet wet, Bri has dived in headfirst, only to emerge soaking wet to tell others how cold the water is. I have seen her develop her stage presence and hone her delivery skills into something incredible. When I was asked to handpick the poets to perform at this years SPARKBOOM event, she was an immediate choice. Her poetry is a force to be reckoned with, although it is more likely to take you by the hand and comfort you by saying: “Don’t worry, I’m lost too.”
You can see & hear Bri perform her words performed live on Saturday, June 21st at SPARKBOOM‘s 2014 kickoff event “Beards, Bards and BOOM” at The Walt Whitman Birthplace.
For more info, visit sparkboom.org. RSVP to our FB event here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven T. Licardi (The Sven-Bo!) is the author of “Death By Active Movement” (Local Gems Press, 2013) and is a spoken word poet, actor, artist, and public speaker from West Islip, NY. Steven uses his many projects to raise awareness of social issues, for advocacy, and as a means to educate others to be compassionate. He hosts as blog called “Cross My Heart And Hope To Write” that explores the relationship between love, beauty, and the human condition. Find out where he will be performing next at TheSvenBo.com.