if writer is synonymous with loner
lonely, alone, meant to be
by one’s self
if love is always best at a distance
from afar, unrequited, long distance
for one’s self
if friendship is always an emptying field of flowers,
a live thing until it stops,
an insect’s life cycle,
decaying cement rubble
wondering if this is the life I chose or
one I didn’t realize I was building
It’s Monday afternoon and sunlight streams in through the blinds of the living room. Princess McDowell begins our Monday conversation by warning that she’ll probably talk a lot from feeling manic. She darts back and forth tidying up, taking cups to the kitchen, taking clothes to the closet. When she finally sits down she compliments the way my purple glasses match my shirt. McDowell herself is decked out in the color, from a shirt that magnificently manages to simultaneously pay homage to Fresh Prince and Outcast, to her plaid bottoms, slippers, and even phone case. Purple is the color of intuition and magick, all things unseen. It’s clear that the home she’s built with her partner honors all these parts of the natural world. In the bathroom her toothbrush sits atop a collection of stones. Vibrant green plants sing from several places. Art hangs on the wall painted in the most sacred blood a body can produce. The shoes just inside the door are the neatest thing in the room—we take them off immediately upon entering because the home of these women is a sacred space.
McDowell sits on the floor and starts making piles of paper while describing upcoming goals. The tiny slips of poems she divides into piles might end up in an upcoming chapbook of unfinished work. She is also interested in writer a graphic novel. “I got into graphic novels after taking this film adaptation class where we read The Watchmen, that was the first graphic novel I ever read and it’s still probably my favorite one.” This experience inspired her to try finding artists who interested in a collaboration. “I want someone that will collaborate with me on it and help me build, and that’s a really hard thing to do and find because motherfuckers don’t want that—they either have it with someone else or they don’t see what you see in the project that you’re pushing.”
Graphic novels stand out on her bookcase—Saga, Heroes, Scott Pilgrim. The shelves are highly curated to take the reader on a journey of visual art narratives to black history to the female experience to where all life ends—at the soul. McDowell believes reading is intrinsic to being an artist. “It allows us to move outside of what we know and gain another perspective, another medium that we can learn from and apply to our own.”
She’s in the midst of several books after being directed by her Literary Godmother to “Read,” as in the opening of an Octavia Butler short story. The first book she describes, The Good Story, Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, is a collection of conversations between the authors on owning our memories and telling our truths. “I’m reading that to stay sane,” she says.
With papers making a circle of protection around her, McDowell sits and gives me a private reading, detailing just how important these issues are. “I tried so long to write a fucking bipolar poem, because I felt like I needed to write something that would talk about my experience inside the psych ward. I don’t remember too many people talking about what it was like to be in there.”
“If I could be a flower in concrete I could escape the cement of diagnosis. I never wanted bipolar disorder to be the cement blocks dragging me to the bottom of the ocean. When escape is impossible and focus is the only saving grace, you will throw yourself to the future to avoid the present and the past.”
Rage Almighty, a poet who has known McDowell for five years, says that mental health is an issue that needs more attention in both the black community and poetry circles. “It’s in the closet and the closet door is open, but nobody wants to go in there. It’s something people need to talk about more, especially in the black community,” he said. “That’s why I’ve always appreciated Princess’ poetry. It’s something that always needs to be addressed. Everybody needs to be putting out this message because there are so many people out there who can relate.”
Mental health is just one of the places McDowell goes in her work. Her words are also heavily influenced by the black experiences and histories of others. As the editor-in-chief of her college newspaper, McDowell created a black history month black history series that uncovered parts of the university’s past some thought were best left out of print. Her scholarship was revoked under the guise of academic reasons, but McDowell observed many editors flying below passing treated like royalty both before and after her time at the paper. McDowell had to work her way back into school, and after returning she was not given the assistance due to someone who had managed the paper. She landed internships on her own but was never able to obtain the career in sports writing that had been her original dream. “The worst part was always watching people who I trained go off and have these big long careers, and travel and get married and have kids and the whole nine—I feel like my life is just starting with this job,” she said. “It changed the entire course of my life. There’s no doubt in my mind had that not happened, had I not made the choices I made, had they not made the choices they made—I’d probably be at ESPN by now. I imagined myself at ESPN by 26. I’m 29.”
Her job as a copywriter doesn’t allow the same creativity as in journalism, but it does allow her the time to explore poetry with a higher degree of intimacy. Lee Escobedo, Co-founder and Director of Thrwd, had McDowell as his first boss during his time at The Shorthorn. “I think she’s less interested in following rules,” he said. “During the time that she had at UTA, she was censured a lot surrounding the personal column she wrote about the history of UTAa racist activities, both campus-wide and student body-wide. I think that had indelible influence on her, where now I think she’s free of those constructs and constraints, and she’s moving in a direction where it’s just her voice.” Escobedo said her voice has become a lot more personal.
The demolition of walls in her writing is evident when she reads me a poem that begins Dear Black Man Poet—
Do you spend your time talking to your girl about her problems but never your own? What qualifies you to tell a woman how to take care of her kids, how to take care of herself? All women do not need to be told by a man that they’re beautiful in order to believe it. You no longer get points for saying things out loud like ‘There’s nothing wrong with my son being gay or her body her choice,’ congratulations, you are now caught up with the rest of the class. Now please, have several seats.
The black experience is very important in McDowell’s work, but she also speaks about the queer experience in a unique way. “I try to be cognizant of the things that come out of my mouth. And when I think about them as far as when I finish a poem and I think about me performing that poem on stage, I get a sense of how I will feel on stage saying those things, wearing whatever I feel like wearing that day, she said. “I’m very cognizant of the fact that there are not a lot of people like me in the poetry scene, or that get it. For me, being masculine-presenting is the biggest factor that affects the way that people interact with me. I feel like it’s the biggest thing that people see— the fact that I’m in a tie or the fact that I’m dressed masculine.”
Snowflake describes the queer experience in Texas and is McDowell’s most famous piece. She is often asked to read it when the host knows another person in the room needs to feel a connection, needs to feel alright in a world unkind to those who don’t fit the traditional mold. “That poem woke me up out of my sleep,” she said. “I like to do it on Cedar Springs at Sue Ellen’s, because I never thought I would be that gay—to be doing that poem on Cedar Springs! Doing it somewhere other than Cedar Springs, you run the risk of people not getting that line, but when you do it on Cedar Springs, people go crazy. Because they get it.”
McDowell says she’s not nearly as angry as she was when Snowflake was born. Her writing now strays from the bravado that might earn a perfect score in a slam. “I don’t write those things as much anymore, not because I don’t feel them, but because I don’t allow myself to sit in the energy that would be needed to produce a really angry poem.” Despite the politics of the slam stage, McDowell is still a presence to behold when she takes the mic.
“I was just blown away by her professionalism. She’s able to get the audience to very viscerally react and emote,” said Albuquerque Poet Laureate Jessica Helena Lopez. “She’s also very, very keen on being able to control the audience in between her poetry. Her banter is very inviting, it’s very calming. She’s a very calming person it was just amazing to work with her.”
Escobedo sees leadership in McDowell’s work. “When I listen to her it makes me think internally about what I need to change about myself. What are the filters or contexts and theories in which I see the world? I start questioning why I’m attracted to those filters why that’s important to me, and are these right and are these wrong. I think she’s definitely challenging her audience, but also leading her audience.”
Lopez said she would love see Princess publish. “I think she’s on the cusp of it, and I think she understands the power of publication. If you can’t have princess in your classroom, because she’s only one princess, you can have a copy of one her poems found online or in an anthology or in a collection,” she said. “I think what sets apart Princess is that the power experienced in person is something that is very palpable when on page. She knows whether to inject a caesura or a line break. I want her to publish in a selfish way—I could use it, and I could read it, I could keep it on my bedside table!”
Lee Escobedo has other ideas for Princess. “I think it would be really beneficial to everybody involved in the arts community in Dallas if she took on some type of leadership role—if she had her own function, or night, or experience or exhibition, and also where she was mentoring and cultivating a scene. I’d love to see her in charge of something,” he said. “If she got herself a position of leadership, it would be vital and really beneficial to not just the poetry scene, but the writing scene as a whole. I think that who she is supposed to be is in an area of leadership. I think that’s a role that’s meant for her.”
Princess McDowell is unsure what’s meant for her down the road. “I’m not very good at future,” she said. “I’ve tried to get better at future by thinking short-term, but I don’t know where I‘d be.”
Right now she’s writing her first novel—a young adult story that features characters of color who deal with mental illness while battling a dystopian society. She’s world building.
Princess has performed on street corners and living rooms, open mics and parking lots. She’ll tell you she just enjoys the opportunity to read her poetry, to listen to other people read theirs, to fellowship and mingle with people she might not otherwise meet.
Princess released her first album of poetry entitled Not A Storybook <3, an a cappella album filled with some of her earlier works. She also self-published a chapbook entitled faith move muscle. In 2013, she competed in her first national poetry competitions, including the Women of the World Poetry Slam and the National Poetry Slam Championships as a member of the 2013 Dallas Poetry Slam Team.
But big things don’t matter as much to her.
She’d rather talk about what she’s inspired by, which is mostly the love we give and show to each other. She describes her poetry as her life wrapped in metaphors. Her favorite poets are usually authors and friends, or authors she wishes could be friends, or friends who would be great authors.
Princess’ poetry can be read at soulfulpoeticlicense.blogspot.com, or check out released tracks on BandCamp and SoundCloud.