Speaking Down Barriers | A Conversation with Poet Davelyn Hill

Transcript:

DAVELYN HALL: I don’t think I can say that I am a mystic without being connected to community. So I can’t say that for me. I need to be connected to community in order to be a mystic, how do you not?

Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you. 

Davelyn Hill is the Executive Director for Speaking Down Barriers. Speaking Down Barriers is an organization whose mission is equity for all. It seeks to build community across all that seeks to divide us by ending oppression and valuing everyone. Davelyn has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Converse College, and is currently working on a Master’s in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry. Davelyn is a poet activist, and alongside providing counseling services, she’s led support groups, presented research and conducted University presentations around racial trauma and oppression. Davelyn Hill, also known as Davelyn Athena, has been published by the Plants and Poetry Journal, and has also been featured by Spark and Echo. 

CASSIDY HALL: Well, Davelyn, thank you so much for joining today.

DAVELYN HALL: You are very welcome. I’m glad to be here.

CASSIDY HALL: So one of the ways I like to kind of begin orienting our conversation is by asking you what the words “contemplation” and/or “mysticism” mean to you. And how do you see them lived out in the world today?

DAVELYN HALL: That’s a — I mean, you have some questions, but I don’t know, I feel overwhelmed by the idea of mysticism. I’ll start with that one. Just when you hear about the Desert Fathers and some of the people who have known God in ways that make me wonder about how it’s even possible to be close and achieve some sort of like felt oneness is kind of what I think about when I think about mysticism, is being super connected to God, so much so that you feel you have a felt feeling of oneness. I believe that oneness can exist without you feeling it, but I feel like my particular journey as a mystic is to be united, have a like a uniting with the universal Christ. That’s kind of what I see. And so when I think about people, some of the nuns of old and people who have had experiences that they then go back and relate to us, like Luther has, is to have said to have those meetings with God is just as amazing. And because of like, our society is so focused on logic, it feels like oh, well, that’s extra biblical. You know, a lot of people say, that doesn’t matter, your experiences don’t matter, the only thing that matters is the word because it’s written. And you’re like mmhhmm for a lot of folks it wasn’t written when it was happening not for them, they didn’t have access. So, I sometimes wonder if our logically… from kind of having the uniting that many of the mystics talk about. And so I think of contemplation as a way… to see mysticism lived out. So if I live a contemplative life and prayer as the mundane or in the mundane, contemplating blades of grass or thinking deeply about things that just kind of happen in the earth, in the universe, and how that leads us back to the creator in oneness. And so having a contemplative life through like reading, and journaling, and meditation, and community, and serving leads me to having then mystical experiences. So then I can refer to myself as a mystic. Because I don’t know how else you’d get there without contemplation.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love the things you’re saying and you also said, correct me if I’m wrong, but you said I believe oneness can exist without feeling it. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit more into that? Because it seems to me, right, there’s an effort to contemplative life that maybe draws us into mysticism that draws us into the oneness. And sometimes we don’t feel it because we’re doing it.

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I get. And that my feelings I can speak to those are, they’re varied. And so I keep working toward the feeling but the oneness already exists. So I come from just believing in my doctrine that I’m already connected to God that I’m already in oneness. And so my journey is having that felt oneness. So become more and more able to kind of tap into oneness in my life. And so that comes and goes. One day can be like, ah bliss, I’m so connected to the God of the universe. Oh! And the next day, I’m like is there a God? I think there is based on like my feelings. And so that’s what I meant by like, I have oneness every day whether I tap into it or not. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, right, right, that makes a lot of sense. And what about this oneness in terms of our unity with our fellow human? So I guess along with that, do you think that there’s an important aspect of being a contemplative and/or mystic that also innately makes us an activist and or someone who points to the collective unity of all of humanity?

DAVELYN HALL: I don’t think I can say that I’m am mystic without being connected to community. So I can’t say that for me, I need to be connected to community in order to be a mystic, how do you not? Because each person kind of gives us another picture of who God is, and so how each time I’m connected to people in community, they reveal another part of God that I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. And so as they either growing towards their relationship with God and opening oneness, or are suffering because of the injustice in the world, and so I’m connected to that as well, to the suffering of God, the suffering of the Christ. And so if I’m not connected to those people, how do I get to see that lens? I can’t. And then also like, we’re literally the love of God made flesh. And so without us people don’t get to see God and we don’t get to see God. And so I don’t understand how — I really don’t. I’d love to meet some folks to tell me you know, I can live this life on my own and be connected to God and it’s wonderful... Right? Like, that’s what I think anyway.

CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Amen. So in your work with Speaking Down Barriers, which is about fostering dialogue and trust among people with different backgrounds and experiences, first of all, maybe you could tell us maybe the origin story of Speaking Down Barriers, and then I could ask a follow up question about that.

DAVELYN HALL: Sure. Speaking Down Barriers started in November of 2013. And it started originally, as poetry and conversation. Before the start in 2013, the founder of Speaking Down Barriers name is Marlanda Dekine and they were at a conference and did a poem and Scott Neely who is our current chief strategist heard her do a poem and was like [gasps] that was amazing how it transformed the room. It was like, ooh, then he saw her again, and same thing happened. And so they decided, I want to have poetry and conversation. And so Marlanda, who was a spoken word poet, she’s an amazing poet. She and some other spoken word poets, all black, or for the most part black, got together and started to do this poetry and conversation, and it began to grow. And Marlanda decided to make it Speaking Down Barriers. It was named by our current Admin Support, she was looking for a name like not poetry and conversation. So it moved into, well, we want to speak down barriers, and so that’s how it got its name. And so Speaking Down Barriers had poetry, conversation and food. And so you know, what’s better than that? A communal meal where you can eat together, starts that way, we talk about a topic, whatever it is, open up with a dialogue question and then poetry pushes that dialogue to places it couldn’t go,  especially first person narratives. It was for you to argue with your first person narrative poem. They can listen to it and receive it, and so it bypasses some of that stuff that comes up and blocks us when we think logically only. And also it causes us to feel things in our bodies. Whereas a lot of time I know for me, I didn’t even recognize my body was actually a part of life. It was so much lived in my head, and it feels and I was like, wait a minute, feelings actually happen in your body. So what am I actually feeling? And spoken word made me feel that. In 2015 it became speaking down barriers and then started to reach out and do trainings. Our current mission is equity for all, we revamped that in 2020. And beginning to think about what the world looks like when there’s equity for all? Well, first of all, it’s ending oppression, all kinds, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all the gender violence, the ways that immigrants are treated in this country, all of that. All of that kind of oppression needs to go. And then also valuing everyone. So while I might not agree with you, I value your humanity because you are human; when I devalue you, I’ll lose myself. So we’ll have to hold on to that, even if I don’t agree with you. And I can have a conversation with folks I don’t agree with as long as their disagreement doesn’t oppress me, I’m okay. When we start to get oppression, I can no longer be in conversation with you, but I still believe in your dignity as a human.

CASSIDY HALL: I’m over here, just like jotting down all these notes of these beautiful things you’re saying. You can’t be a mystic without being connected to community, and this notion of poetry, being able to transform the room, and what you just said, when I devalue you I lose myself. I mean, these are just such profound things. And I’m seeing the ways that this goes back to the beginning of the conversation where we talked about that experience of oneness, and its existence of oneness with God, with each other, and how to touch that. And I’m wondering if you’ve experienced kind of the moments where we touch that or where you’ve been able to touch that with other people in a room, with poetry as this transforming force that maybe takes us to this liminal space or this transcendent space.

DAVELYN HALL: It’s a good word, yeah, transcendence. Yeah, I’ve been in many rooms where this has happened. Where even things are stuck, until a poet does a poem. And it’s like, all of a sudden the room opens up. Or we’ve also started using art. So we’ve been using virtual spaces, so the art is like in your face, you can do it on zoom, where like the art is like, wow! Okay, so I’m seeing this art, hearing from the artist, and hearing their experience. And all of a sudden, the room opens up again, things you never thought of — It’s a tool of expansion. And so I’m really big on freedom chants, I love a freedom chant. Freedom Chants all the way from enslaved folks using the oral tradition, using language for all kinds of purposes, using it to be incognito, to plot the way forward, to encourage hearts then becoming part of the gospel tradition and become a huge and civil rights. And I feel like now — it’s even now, I was always been existing, but it feels like I’m more aware of it now. And so I’ve been in rooms where freedom chants have done the same thing. It’s like a uniting, like a oneness when we’re all like fighting and singing and hoping for the same, for equity, for justice and for just being able to kind of live and thrive.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah. One of the things I noticed is that you define yourself not solely as poet nor solely as an activist, but as a poet activist. And I wonder if you could share what it means to merge these words as a role. Are poets also innately activists, by the nature of the way poets use words to transform or transcend the moment to point to something that could be amid what is?

DAVELYN HALL: I think when you say it like that, that’s it. 

CASSIDY HALL: I guess to be fair, right, we can we can all misuse words still. 

DAVELYN HALL: Mhmm. Yeah. And I don’t necessarily think — so when I use the word activist, I mean, speaking truth to power. And so in that way, not all poets are activists. Now, in the way that they kind of reveal what is and can a lot of times cause like all of the fluff around something to disappear so that you get to the heart of the matter, then in that way, I believe they could all be activists. To be able to take nature, even the way of like words worth and be like, wow, I see nature anywhere, have a deeper appreciation for nature. Or when I read Mary Oliver stuff, I’m wowed by the beauty of language and the ability of language to connect us in a way. Mary Oliver, and I don’t have anything common, but when she puts the words on the page, we have a lot in common. So in that way, like, causing humanity to maybe appreciate itself, and to see us in each other’s eyes, then I think it definitely works. However, I don’t think we all use poetry to speak truth to power. And that’s what I mean, when I say a poet activist. I want to use my words to make people feel something, like Julie Cameron says that she wanted her words make people feel something and I want the same. And so when you feel something though I want you to do something, and hopefully to be a part of the fixing the problem, be a part of change whatever that looks like.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. In your work do you see this work of poet activist, and mystic as intertwined? Do you see those as similar or one that leads to the other or is there a relationship there I guess I’m wondering?

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, sometimes like when I talk about the felt oneness, you have to pick up your pen and write down a poem because it’s like grand. And then other times, I’m just kind of writing from humanity, from that place of kind of whatever I’m experiencing, sometimes about various like traumas and joys, both. Find the page, but then sometimes there’s that work that you know, this poem was not mine. I’m just scribing it down.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. Do you think there’s anything to learn from contemplation and/or mysticism that informs things like activism and/or collective protest or movements that take place today? And then vice versa, right? Can those also feed the contemplation and feed the mystical moments? 

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, I do. I do. I think when lots of people, especially you’re out in protesting and taking care of each other, making sure people have water and making sure that people are taking care of themselves, even in the midst of kind of protesting the state, that for me is beautiful community and an opportunity to think about in the moment, but definitely after the moment, like what was that like? How do we share with each other? Did we move anything forward? Having those discussions, I think helps you lead a contemplative life. So I think the feedback loop works both ways. And yeah, those things definitely feed poetry, I think, because poetry is of the stuff of everyday life too. And so being able to kind of really live in moments, with other people and alone, and see God in those moments, I feel like helps the page and helps the poetry, which then goes forth for people to read and enjoy and be moved by. I mean I write poems for myself too, but I want people to read it. And I think most people — well, some people do write just for their journal and just for themselves, but that’s just not the kind of poetry or painting or anything that I do. It’s not just for me.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Speaking of I would love for you to read a poem. I do want to ask one more question before we get to that. You talked a lot about logic at the beginning of the conversation. Do you think our obsession with logic and knowing and wanting to do things right and the talking about the thing but not doing the thing, do you think that makes — it doesn’t make us slow down, but doesn’t it also make things just less close to the oneness and the way it makes a lot of things inaccessible or unreachable or like there’s just too many words in the way? 

DAVELYN HALL: I frequently feel that.

CASSIDY HALL: Even my own right now, right? 

DAVELYN HALL: No, no, no, I frequently feel that way that there are so many words, so so  many, and even in silence, people like are like oh I had silent time today. But really, the silent time was music, with words, and it was reading. And so like even self wasn’t silent, even though you are alone, like solitude does not equal without words. And so, I’ve been thinking about that previously, like what does it mean to actually breathe in a moment, with actual silence. Not the phone, not scrolling, even not writing and journaling about it, but actual silence. So yeah, I think it does make things inaccessible. There are some things that just really need to be felt. We’re talking about — I was talking to a group of people who were talking about language and how even we who don’t speak the same language, you can still communicate, you can communicate heart and care and concern. Wow, I think that that means something. Yeah.

CASSIDY HALL: So at this ordination, where our paths crossed, you wrote and you read a beautiful poem, titled Beloved Community, which moved me and I’m sure everyone else in that room to tears. And I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind reading that for us today?

DAVELYN HALL: I do not mind at all. Thank you. I really love to hear that it moved folks. It’s really, you know, I want to make people feel and so feeling is not necessarily — I guess there is a direct feeling. I’d like people to feel connected to each other, connected to God, connected to themselves, that poetry would be connection.

         Beloved Community, by Davelyn Hill

Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls, as well as a quantitative change in our lives. Martin Luther King Jr. 

We, us, black, white, brown, human, 

Gathered like oaks, pines in the forest, 

Women, men, non-binary, transgender, gender expansive,

Are, is, state of being 

The image of God we shine like constellations in the galaxy. 

Beloved, be loved, one who is loved, taken care of, needs met, heart filled, accepted, forgiven much for terrible and for inaction, not fighting for the least of these and still being the beloved,

Community, I am because we are,

Sharing the cup, being the body, binding each other’s wounds in places we cannot reach ourselves. 

We are the bride,

God calls us woman, exalts woman, asks us to become woman,

To receive all our good from Spirit to enter into a covenant relationship. 

We co-create, expand, thrive, all things become shared,

Humanity, flaws, and all

Love made visible through flesh. 

Beloved Community loves all, endures all, because we do it together, 

Like trees gathered in a forest, like wandering lights in the night sky, who create constellations, binding each other’s wounds, loving the least of these because we are the least of these. 

We are the image of God, 

Be beautiful.

 At times bruised and broken, beloved, be loved. 

We are the Beloved Community, 

Ashe and Amen.

CASSIDY HALL: Thank you. Yeah, just as powerful once again. I also found some of your work on a page called plants and poetry.

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, yes, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. So I have gone through years of illness, and at times, just really unable to do anything. And during that time, I had a tree outside my window, and I named the tree Dolores. And yes, Dolores, I would stare Dolores, I would talk to Dolores. And Dolores got me through, just thinking about her roots. I read a book on trees while I was ill, and just learning about trees and how they communicate with each other, and they’re super smart. And it’s just God’s little design is amazing. But yeah, like they communicate with each other, they help each other survive attacks, they will give with the other trees need and receive what they need from the other trees. And so just looking at the Delores after having read that I was like, I don’t know, like there’s some kind of vibrational thing happening between us. And we are all connected and we’re connected to all of life. And so I wrote a poem, a short poem about Delores in a Plants and Poetry journal, took it in…

CASSIDY HALL: I mean, I really want you to read that now. And you named her Dolores.

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, so it’s really short, but it says it’s called Dolores. 

Delores, by Davelyn Hill

The tree outside my windows name is Dolores. 

I open my blinds in the morning and she waves at me.

This morning, she was changing clothes. 

The beautiful green she normally wears turned into hues of orange, red and yellow.

I was too tired to change clothes. 

The wind blew so fiercely, that she shook and trembled.

I would love to see her roots. 

I’d wrap myself in a blanket and close my eyes.

CASSIDY HALL: That’s great. Thank you.

So Davelyn, thank you so much for joining and just for this incredible conversation. And I’m wondering where people can find you and find your work, and if you’re working on anything currently that we should be on the lookout for?

DAVELYN HALL: Sure, thanks. So Speaking Down Barriers website is http://www.speakdownbarriers.org. And not speaking, but speak down. And on our website page, and we’re also on Facebook, and Instagram at Speak Down Barriers. You can find out all the things. We’re having all of our events virtual at the moment, so we love it when people come from far away and from post by. Just love all the peoples to come and have a conversation. We’re really trying to build a multi-ethnic coalition and the only way we can do that is by having conversations together. Also we can find our poets, we have a spotlight poet every four months. And currently, her name is Sharae “FIRE” Walton, but we’ve all called her “Fire.” Fire is amazing as well. So people can find out about her work and the people who come before her. ShAy Black and a Hayle Oswell, (AKA Celestial Poet) had been our previous spotlight artists. And we want people to come and share their poetry and their life. And they do an awesome job using poetry and art to push us forward. It is good to get to know someone, so after four months, I feel like we know these poets and they know us in some part of the community. Right now I myself am holding abolition really close to my heart. I consider myself an abolitionist. And for me, that means abolition is creating things. So it means creating a world where everybody can thrive and where we have things set up for harm like conflict-mediation and conflict-resolution, conflict-coaching. We also have transformative healing circles and we have places where harm can be mitigated versus the system that we have with over-policing, over-surveillance, and just profiting off of crime, making things that really aren’t criminal-criminal, making things more important than people. And so while that exists, I just can’t get behind that system. So I want to bring it all down, and also build. So it’s a both-and for me.

CASSIDY HALL: Thank you so much for joining me today and for taking the time to chat. I really, really appreciate it and I’m grateful for your work. I’m grateful for your voice. And yeah, the mystical presence that you brought that day when I heard you read poetry was transformative and transcendent, so thank you.

DAVELYN HALL: Well, thank you. Sometimes I wonder, I think what my words are doing. I spend a lot of time with just sending my work out, somebody to take my work, somebody take my work. And so on the other end of that is like in the felt experience of folks. And so it gives me kind of joy, I think, oh, the work is doing something regardless of what it does in other places. When I hear from people, it’s like, okay, my work is doing good doing, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.

OUTRO:

CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.Support the Podcast

Published by Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall (MA) is an author, filmmaker, podcaster, student, and holds a MA in Counseling. She works as a Teaching Assistant at Christian Theological Seminary where she is studying for her MDiv and MTS degrees. She also serves as Student Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ. Since 2017, Cassidy has been the Secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society. Cassidy worked on the production team of the documentary feature film In Pursuit of Silence and her directorial debut short-film, Day of a Stranger paints an intimate portrait of Thomas Merton’s hermitage years. Her podcast, Encountering Silence features interviews with contemplatives, modern-day mystics, and explores the ambiguity of silence in our modern-day lives. Cassidy’s work centers around the tension and intersection of silence and social action and contemplation in a world of action.

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