Kew Gardens poet culls art from life lessons

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Queens poet Juanita Torrance-Thompson broke her wrist around Memorial Day weekend. Still, she didn’t cut her commitments and at one reading showed up with a long white glove on her hand.

“So when I got there I said to the audience, ‘Do any of you know Antonio Banderas?’” Torrance-Thompson recalled. “‘Well this is all his fault,’ and I pointed to my hand.” She and her husband Hugh had been walking down the street to see Banderas in “Nine.” It was a rainy, slippery evening and she fell. The audience at the reading warmed to her immediately. “One of the best New York audiences I’ve had, they responded so wonderfully,” she said.

Torrance-Thompson, of Kew Gardens, has read all over the world, from Barnes and Noble in Bayside to Poets Corner in New Rochelle to the University of Capetown in South Africa.

“What an experience! Really very thrilling,” she said, though she lost all of her photos of Robben Island. She has read at Winterthur and Kantonsschuler Rychenberg in Switzerland and all manner of universities, colleges, bookstores and libraries. Once she read at a Florida high school in Pompano Beach, where students had never been exposed to poetry. “The students just soaked it up, absorbed everything,” she said. “The questions were so intelligent and so moving.”

Torrance-Thompson hasn’t been reading so much in the last couple of years because of the terminal illness of her mother. 2002 found her reeling from her mother’s death and getting back into her work. “People should know what a wonderful person she was,” Torrance-Thompson said. “She was a Baha’i, as was her mother’s mother. She was one of the first African American Baha’i in the country. She spent most of her adult life abroad — she escaped from Uganda with her life. Her faith was very strong, so when she didn’t make it, it threw me for a loop.”

Baha’i is a religion founded in Iran in the mid-19th century whose followers believe in the unity of all humankind and all religions.

Besides her mother, other influences on Torrance-Thompson’s poetry have been Thaddeus Rutkowsky, author of “Roughhouse,” who both inspires and instructs her. Others are Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, William Carlos Williams, Cornelius Eady, and Yusef Komunyakaa, with whom she studied. “He’s so brilliant, it was almost like sitting at his knee.” Torrance-Thompson was also part of the Cave Canem poetry group, and studied short story writing with Elizabeth McCracken.

Her latest book, which follows “Wing Span to Eternity” and “Spanning the Years,” is “Celebrating A Tapestry of Life,” which came out in April. She is now working on a memoir/biography.

One third is about her, and the rest is about her mother. “People have said to me ‘Your poetry’s really getting better and better as the years go by.’ It seems when there’s a tragedy my poetry soars. Artists need to suffer they say, to really create.” As one lady told her, “I get the feeling that writing is your best friend!”

Torrance-Thompson does not consider herself a performance artist, like lots of poets these days. “I’m not really a performance artists per se, in the true sense of the word. I always have a manuscript with me — a book, or preferably 8 1/2-by-11 paper. I don’t want to be up there and all of a sudden go blank. But I give dramatic readings, that’s what I call it, because I’m an actress and studied acting, and appeared in various shows.” Hugh is very supportive of her writing and often drives her to her readings.

A lot of Torrance-Thompson’s poems are about her present experience, but she’s not above elaboration. “I’m not a journalist and therefore I can take the liberty of changing things or embellishing to make the poem work. I may have stayed in some place where there had been beautiful mountains but if the mountains aren’t going to work in the poem, if I want to change it to crashing ocean waves, I’ll change it. Truth is no excuse for bad poetry.”

Torrance-Thompson lives in Kew Gardens with Hugh and their son, Derrick. She was raised in a Massachusetts town that she refuses to name because of its racist roots. Torrance-Thompson started writing in her 7th grade algebra class, out of boredom — her algebra teacher told her that she shouldn’t go to college because she couldn’t do college algebra. She eventually went to college, got an “A” in algebra and even did well after a crash course in statistics.

Torrance-Thompson, who writes about what life hands her, has, of course, written about her wrist. She was even thinking of including a poem about it at an upcoming reading, but she needs to work on it more.

“It depends on how it turns out. It might be a long poem. I usually don’t write long poems.” She might do a chapbook about disability, inspired by her own cracked carpals. “People look at you differently,” she said. “You become sensitive to that, you notice how people act and react. On the other hand you meet people who are very nice.”

And as always, the inspiration to write keeps coming.

Juanita Torrance-Thompson will be reading at the Summer Festival in the Square at Union Square Park and 16th Street in Manhattan on Wednesday, Aug. 6, from 5-5:30 p.m. and at the American International College, Wednesday, Sept. 2, at 3 p.m.

Posted 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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