Libby Mislan (she/her) is a poet and community-based artist in Queens. Inspired by the intersections between poetry, music, dance, and visual art, she has collaborated extensively with artists of other mediums to create multidisciplinary works. She graduated with her MFA in poetry in 2018 from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she studied the intersections of poetry and body wisdom. Her work weaves the personal and the political in explorations of personal, collective and ecological healing. Libby works as a teaching artist with youth of all ages in New York City public schools with Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Community-Word Project, and City Lore. She also leads a variety of creative expression workshops for adults in partnership with several of her beloved artist-facilitator collaborators. Her most recent poetry project, Queens Flora, was funded by Queens Council on the Arts, and explored the plant life of the Ridgewood Reservoir. Another project, Inside Norman Street, brought together 12 neighbors living on the same street in Ridgewood to participate in a storytelling performance project in collaboration with professional dancers. Libby is also a certified leader in InterPlay, an improvisational practice that uses storytelling, movement, voice, and stillness to deepen connection to self and community. She is the author of the children’s book, “The Shaya I Know,” a collaboration with her partner Eldad Arad. To see more of Libby’s work, visit www.libbymislan.com.
QG: What does the intersection of poetry and body wisdom mean to you?
LM: The intersection of poetry and body wisdom means to me the practice of writing from an intuitive place rather than a cognitive or rational one. I find myself focused on it because it’s actually one of my struggles—I’m someone who has a very logistical and linear part of my brain that is active for a lot of the day, and I can have trouble turning that off when I’m getting into my poetry. It’s like the part of my brain that wants to tell a story from beginning to end in a highly organized and sequential way, rather than writing from a place of emergence, where I let myself surprise myself. I want to find that place that is less concerned with order or the “point,” and has surrendered control of steering the ship. I think getting to that place where the creative self finds a flow requires being grounded in the body, because I want to write from a place that’s in touch with deep feeling, and in touch with sensory experience. That’s the place where something really moving can happen, especially when it comes to poetry.
QG: What do you love most about creating multidisciplinary work?
LM: I think my urge to create multidisciplinary work comes from the fact that I’ve been so moved by music and by dance—but yet I’m primarily a poet. I began performing my poems over 10 years at a weekly hip hop open mic event and got inspired by the organic way music and word weave together in hip hop. I started writing my poems to music, and then performing them alongside my friend who’s a dancer. We got a lot of positive feedback. It became fun to create an experience for an audience that was engaging on so many levels: visually, sonically, intellectually, emotionally. At the same time, I just love collaborating, and working with other art forms gives me the chance to do that. It’s like the stereotype of a writer is someone who is alone in their room working, highly solitary, and that’s true for a certain part of my process, but I so appreciate then being able to come up out of that space and work with other artists to bring poems to life. That’s what I envy about an art form like theatre or even music; it’s so much more naturally collaborative. As a writer I’ve had to make my process collaborative very intentionally.
QG: Do you write every single day?
LM: Oh my—I wish I could say yes, but the answer is no! My teaching schedule is keeping me really busy at the moment. And even if it didn’t—I struggle with the discipline to write every day. If I’m working on a specific project, that will help. It has also helped to have recently formed a little writing group, since it gives me a really small audience that I need to prepare my work for. I thrive on accountability that lives outside myself. Artistic discipline is something I struggle with. It’s like a constant journey of trying to figure out what are the little hacks to help with keeping my practice regular.
QG: What advice do you have for readers facing writer’s block?
LM: Just tell yourself you’re about to write a bunch of crap, and that’s completely fine. Tell yourself it’ll be horrible, and that’s okay. Tell yourself it’s not for anything, that no one will see it. And let it be sloppy. Don’t try to write a polished poem or paragraph—let it be jumbled and meandering. At least that’s what works for me, because it completely takes the pressure off, and then it helps me open up a bit. If you really feel unfocused, give yourself a time limit: I’m just going to write for 30 minutes. Whatever comes out in 30 minutes, that’s enough for the day, and you can try again tomorrow. I also recommend physical activity before sitting down to write: dancing, walking, biking, running. And getting to know your energy rhythms: some people can’t work on anything creative after the sun goes down, and others are the complete opposite. It helps to have all that information about yourself, so you can maximize the chances that you’ll find your flow.
QG: Can you tell us more about your work as a teaching artist? What are the most important skills a teacher should possess?
LM: As a teaching artist, I work with a few different organizations that place me in public schools here in the city—so I mostly teach poetry, and work with students for anywhere from 8-16 weeks. We usually publish a book of students’ work at the end of my residency, or have some kind of culminating project or event. Sometimes I work with a co-teacher of another medium, so we’ll co-teach poetry and art, or poetry and dance. I usually work with the school I’m placed in to figure out what kind of theme or exploration would compliment everything else the students are learning about or talking about. A lot of common themes I work with are around celebrating the self, celebrating family and community life, exploring our emotional worlds, and social justice. I work with 2nd-12th grade. It’s a huge range. But I appreciate the variety. I’ve worked in schools in every borough except Staten Island (sorry, Staten—hopefully I’ll make it out to you one day!) A teacher should possess…the ability to remember. To remember what made them feel seen, creative, and alive—when they were a kid. I always think back to what made me feel proud and empowered, and try to replicate that in my teaching.
QG: What should our readers know about Queens Flora?
LM: Queens Flora was a poetry project I created in 2019 inspired by the plant life at the Ridgewood Reservoir. I went into the project as a total ecology amateur, and learned so much from urban ecology educators who I connected with. I got to know so many plants, trees, and flowers at the reservoir: mugwort, milkweed, chicory, wild rose, dandelion, mullein, sassafras, burdock, birch, knotweed, London plane—and as I researched them, I wrote poems about my experiences getting to know them. It’s amazing getting to know urban ecology because then everywhere you go, you can’t stop noticing and identifying the same plants or trees that are everywhere—they really do become like seeing old friends. The project ended with a poetry concert at the reservoir on the fall equinox, where I read my poems alongside a classical guitarist and two dancers. I realized through the process that I use poetry to guide me into the world in a more connected way—if it wasn’t for the project and the process it took me through, I wouldn’t have taken the time to connect with my environment in the way I did. And I really learned how you don’t need to move upstate to connect to the living earth that’s right here underneath our feet!
QG: What did you learn about Ridgewood through your project, Inside Norman Street?
LM: Inside Norman Street was a community arts project that I created in 2015, and repeated in 2017. It brought together 12 people living on Norman Street in Ridgewood to write stories about their lives, and then read them in collaboration with professional dancers as part of a community performance. Through the project, I learned that artists exist in every household in Ridgewood. I recruited participants for the project literally just by dropping off invitations under the doors of every building on Norman, with a small application attached. Participants just started coming out of the woodwork, representing every culture and age group and level of artistic experience. Sometimes in New York, especially in the winter, you look at a single street and just see a bunch of dull-colored row houses. It can be hard to imagine all the richness, and the sacredness, of the stories that lie behind each door. The project showed me how hungry people are for ways to come together and connect in fresh ways.
QG: What have you learned through your work with InterPlay?
LM: InterPlay is an improvisational practice that involves storytelling, dance, stillness and song. It has all these exercises (called ‘forms’) that make it really accessible to anyone, even if you don’t consider yourself an artist of any kind. InterPlay has taught me so much, but if I could boil it down to one thing…it would be that adults need to play just as much as kids do. In fact, adults desperately need to play more. Play can be one of the most healing things. InterPlay is often called “sneaky deep,” meaning that sometimes, through doing something that feels really light-hearted, you can actually have a profound experience, or open up a place in you that has been closed down for a long time. The practices give you room to have joy, grief, and anything in between. If you’re curious about InterPlay, I recommend going to their website (interplay.org) and checking out the calendar, because they have amazing drop-in workshops that you can try online any day of the week.
QG: Who are some of your favorite artists, writers, and poets with a Queens connection?
LM: The first thing that popped into my head is the HBO series “How To: With John Wilson.” It’s so quirky and funny, with such a depth at the same time. It’s like watching visual poetry. And it was so cool to see that he was filming so much of it in Ridgewood. In terms of music…The Grand Affair (@thegrandaffair) is a music duo with roots in Astoria. They are incredible artists with an inspiring love story—and they also happen to be my friends! I also love classic New York hip hop so I have to shout out Nas and A Tribe Called Quest! When it comes to poetry, I’m getting to know more Queens poets through Olena Jennings’ reading series (poetsofqueens.org). I caught their last reading and got to hear some amazing work from Queens poets—one of my favorites was Audrey Dimola (audreydimola.com), a Long Island City native and “folkloric futurist.”
QG: What are your favorite places to be inspired to write in Queens?
LM: Hands down, my favorite places to be inspired in Queens are the green spaces—Forest Park, The Ridgewood Reservoir, Socrates Sculpture Park, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The Rockaways and Riis Beach and Fort Tilden. I love the places where this sense of city is interrupted and we remember how we share this land with so many other creatures and plants—and we have this whole deep dark Atlantic ocean right here. I get inspired by places with a sense of history: places with dilapidated buildings with plants sprouting out of them, that make you ask questions about the past.
QG: What are your favorite restaurants in Queens?
LM: One of my go-to’s is Tasty’s Diner on Myrtle Ave in Ridgewood. That’s where my partner and I go to have quality time. We order the Mexican omelette and the Florentine omelette and a single pancake to share. It has such a cozy, classic diner feel. When we go to the Tasty’s we usually end up talking about some kind of plan: around money, or work, or our relationship, or something that feels off balance in one of our lives. We give each other pep talks there. For some reason it’s this very grounded place where we reflect, and plan our next moves. We also love the Nepalese Indian Restaurant in Ridgewood—we’ve been ordering from them a lot, but I miss eating indoors there. They have such a lovely indoor vibe.
QG: Could you tell us a bit about your children’s book, The Shaya I Know?
LM: “The Shaya I Know” is a collaboration between me and my partner, Eldad. The book features photographs of Eldad’s handcrafted mobiles and my rhyming storyline. The story follows a character, Shaya, who isn’t sure how to spend her day, and her wise grandma Gaia shows her all these beautiful possibilities. It was an interesting creative process because I had the challenge of working with Eldad’s already existing mobiles, and then thinking about what kind of storyline would work best. (As I’m saying this, I’m remembering that we actually had our initial meetings about it, and came up with the storyline at Tasty’s Diner!) I love rhyming, and I haven’t been writing poems that rhyme for a while now, so it was really fun to write the rhymes for the children’s book. The most rewarding part about it has been hearing families say it’s one of their favorite books to read before bedtime. I like thinking about how the book takes on a life of its own, in peoples’ everyday rituals and routines. (The book is for sale on Eldad’s website: www.sfmobiles.com/shop)
This column was originated in July 2013 by Nicollette Barsamian