Wordsmith extraordinaire Meres-Sia Gabriel ventures off into Soul Poetry at the De Young Museum on June 17 with saxophonist Howard Wiley

Poetry-De-Young-with-Meres-Sia-Gabriel-and-Howard-Wiley, Wordsmith extraordinaire Meres-Sia Gabriel ventures off into Soul Poetry at the De Young Museum on June 17 with saxophonist Howard Wiley, News & Views

by JR Valrey, the Minister of Information

Meres-Sia Gabriel is what you would call a writers’ writer. Her prior literary work explores many subgenres within literature including poetry, journaling and writing for an audience. She is most known in literary circles for her “Life Changing Writing” courses for writers. Her notoriety is starting to expand now that she has been invited to perform her poetry at the prestigious De Young Museum in San Francisco June 17, accompanied by the locally based jazz saxophone legend Howard Wiley. 

A wordsmith of the highest order, Mere Sia Gabriel defines herself as a “soul poet” in much the same way that Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka were jazz poets, with their works alluding to jazz culture, which was the dominant culture at that time. Check out this very candid exclusive interview that we did that shines light on the fire that Meres-Sia has been through to write with such precision and passion. 

JR Valrey: When in your life did you determine that you were a poet? Boots Riley has always talked about how you were a dope MC when y’all were going to Oakland High.

Meres-Sia Gabriel: I am a writer. It was easier for me and was more suitable for my lifestyle as a single mother with limited time. So pulling from my past as a lyricist-MC, I continued in that vein when I wrote my book “I Twirl in the Smoke,” which is a short mixed-genre memoir of stories and poems. However, I never considered myself a poet, until the De Young asked me to collaborate as one. Then I began to accept that poetry is my strong suit and it’s easier for me to tell stories that way.  

I didn’t go to Oakland High. I knew Boots from hip hop circles. We were close friends at that time. I loved making music with my group – Andre Neal, Joseph Stultz and Quame Patton was our dj. Andre and Joseph were serious writers and honored me as a writer and helped me grow into a committed lyricist. Unfortunately, circumstances wouldn’t allow us to continue on the journey at that time. But recently we’ve been working on some things. As long as I’m breathing, I’m going to write, rhyme, sing and tell stories any way they want to come out.

JR Valrey: How did you and the well known saxophonist Howard Wiley start working together?

Meres-Sia Gabriel: A good friend of mine, saxophonist Teodross Avery referred me to him. Howard and I met to do a vibe check. I liked his approach and I guess he felt I was ok to work with lol, so we moved forward. I have big music ideas and limited music vocabulary. Where another musician might get impatient with my limitations, Howard generously helps me cultivate my vision for the De Young project.

JR Valrey: How did you hook up with the De Young Museum to do this June 17 performance? What is the theme of the day?

Meres-Sia Gabriel: Francesca D’Alessio (ig @dj_francesca) was working with the De Young in 2019 when she saw my video performance at the Oakland Museum. She loved the audience response and made it a priority to find me and bring me into the De Young for their “poetry in the galleries” program. We just got the ball rolling when the pandemic shut everything down. Nevertheless, Francesca made sure to put me in touch with the right people in 2022 once things opened up again, although she’d relocated by then.

I’m performing to enhance the visitors’ experience of the Kehinde Wiley and Lhola Amira exhibitions. I’ve performed twice already and June 17 will be our last performance. 

The beautiful part about this collaboration with the De Young is that they understand that the artistic process is a flexible and ever expanding one, so while it’s important to relate the poetry to the exhibits, they allow me to grow and develop the theme over time. They don’t expect perfection the first time. Now that my third performance is coming up, I can definitely see growth and feel the overall story is more cohesive. 

My theme is always love in one form or another. And honestly, I feel that love is at the core and the root of both Wiley and Amira’s exhibitions. Like them, my poetic love is unapologetically expressed through the cultural language of my heart. So far, it has been well received by visitors. I’m performing  some pieces from my book, some from my recordings and some new pieces.

JR Valrey: What kinds of things do you write about as a poet?

Meres-Sia Gabriel: That’s hard for me to answer. First, I would classify myself as a Soul Poet in the way Langston Hughes was considered a jazz poet for writing about jazz experiences or making references to jazz music. I make a lot of references to soul music in my work. But ultimately I just use poetry and spoken word to tell stories. “Bliss” is about honoring the contract we’re born with in our hearts. “Toi”  is a French love letter. “How I learned about America” is about my loneliness as a Panther Cub baby, which was only soothed by my grandmother; and the chaos of transitioning into society after The Party ended. These are some examples of what you’ll hear when you visit the DeYoung on the 17th.

Meres-Sia-Gabriel, Wordsmith extraordinaire Meres-Sia Gabriel ventures off into Soul Poetry at the De Young Museum on June 17 with saxophonist Howard Wiley, News & Views
Meres-Sia Gabriel

JR Valrey: Can you talk about you being a published author?

Meres-Sia Gabriel: What would you like to know? You can find my bestselling book “I TWIRL  IN THE SMOKE” on Amazon. I wrote it in 2010 and revised it slightly in 2020 before placing it on Amazon where it became a bestseller in a few categories.

JR Valrey: How does growing up as a baby Panther, alongside your parents, affect your writing?

Meres-Sia Gabriel: Well, when your parents have given their mind, body and soul to an organization, Revolution or “The people,” there’s nothing left for you. That’s just math. There’s no denying that I suffered a lot of emotional neglect. 

Leaving the Party didn’t return them to me either as they were war-torn, shell shocked soldiers trying to make a living now in a world that hadn’t transformed in the way they thought it would. But my parents were not the only artists or thinkers in our family. 

My grandmother taught me a lot about our society as a child. She was also a great storyteller and writer. One of my aunts who helped my grandmother care for me growing up is like a savante. She is a master writer but has not pursued it seriously. And my uncle was a talented visual artist also. 

I’m a very deep thinker, but that can be attributed to many factors, both positive and negative. Some external and some innate just like for any human being.

JR Valrey: Can you talk a little bit about the writing workshop that you founded?

Meres-Sia Gabriel: I teach an eight-week course for writers of every genre and experience level. Ultimately my course focuses on developing healthy artistic practices that strengthen writer voice and help you develop a sustainable writing lifestyle. Some people come into the course with a story they’re working on and others need help identifying the story. I’ve had writing professors and published authors take the course as well as clients with no writing practice or experience. The course culminates in a public reading via zoom. 

I have clients from all over the world. It’s a lovely experience of creative bonding, developing writer self-compassion and growth. I feel so rewarded when a client who comes in as “someone who wants to write” leaves calling him or herself a writer. Or when they get published and say that the support of their peers in the program is what made it possible.

JR Valrey: When and where are your next performances?

Meres-Sia Gabriel: The finale of the De Young trilogy will be Saturday, June 17, 11:30-1:30 p.m. On the 29th at 8 p.m. I’ll be at the Peacock Lounge with another incredible saxophonist, James Mahone. We’ll see what else the future holds. 

JR Valrey: How do people keep up with you online?

Meres-Sia Gabriel: Website: www.Lifechangingwriting.com. Instagram: @lifechangingwriting. You can join my newsletter from either site to stay in touch. My Facebook is Meres-Sia Gabriel.

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, is also the editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. He teaches the Community Journalism class twice a week at the San Francisco Bay View newspaper office.