Taiwana Shambley: I was about 18, performing poetry, when we met. Carolyn, you were one of the judges for the annual poetry slam, called Be Heard. I asked you for feedback. A few months later, I was starting to write a novel imagining a society built on Black Liberation principles. There weren’t any Black creative writing teachers at Augsburg. I reached out to see if you wanted to be a mentor for my project.
Carolyn Holbrook: I remember being totally surprised by your first email. No one in the slam community had ever emailed to ask, “How did I do?” I wanted to embrace you right then. I remain impressed with your writing and your determination. I am never going to forget that map you made about the island that I suggested you create. It was amazing.
TS: I wanted to build a world based on Black feminist and socialist principles. I wanted all of the radical traditions that we have in Black social movements represented in this world. I had the idea of creating an island founded by enslaved Africans during the antebellum era. I envisioned them breaking away from the mainland of the U.S. and forming their own society built on the premise of Black liberation, but I couldn’t see the terrain and the landscape. I couldn’t really see how much contemporary African American culture they would have versus indigenous West African. You had the idea of me creating a map. Black feminism, Martin Luther King’s nonviolent philosophy, Black militant strategies for the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, slave rebellions. Each theory had its own tribe.
CH: You told me recently, “I want to be the girl who writes.” Being able to maintain that focus, whether you’re working full time or freelancing, you keep that goal in front of you.
TS: When I think about what distinguishes a mentor from a teacher or a coach, for me it has to be relationship. A teacher is “I held a class, and you were a student in the class.” We engaged with each other. For me, a mentorship is the personal investment in a relationship — you care for this person. You want to see them do well and you approach them with warmth and love.
CH: You have mentored me by allowing me to observe your persistence and your determination. I was not surprised that you decided to go to grad school. Part of your trajectory wanting to be “the girl that writes” is to get an MFA. You joined the writing group I have been a part of for more than 20 years, Twin Cities Black Women Writing. I was happily surprised by the depth of your criticism. I love hearing the way you give feedback. You know how to do it with love.
TS: At first, I didn’t know that those were two separate skills. You can understand a story and how it works, but also how you give feedback really does matter. If you are giving feedback in a way that feels like you are trying to tear someone down, or trying to prove you are smarter than them, it doesn’t work.
You have lived many lives. I am curious how you found your way to your philosophy and your approach to mentorship as our Slam Granny?
CH: I was like one of those teenagers that you are working with now. I was not a pleasant person. I had a boyfriend who liked to rob gas stations. We were a Black Bonnie and Clyde in Minneapolis. We got caught robbing a gas station. I ended up in juvie. It was the scariest experience I’d had at that point in my life. I was always getting kicked out of class in school and sent to the principal’s office, getting suspended. But my eighth-grade English teacher saw me — she encouraged me to write poetry because she liked what I wrote in her class.
The way she treated me, I never forgot it. I said that if I was ever able to work with young people, I wanted to use her example.
I had the same experience with my probation officer. She could have been horrible, but she took one look at me and said, “You don’t belong here. I don’t want to see you again. You are better than this.” It’s in my memoir. Those two women always stayed in the back of my mind.
TS: When people ask how I see my life panning out, I say I want to be like Carolyn Holbrook. I want to be that mentor who is a familiar presence in the Twin Cities literary arts community, who mentors generations of writers, with students who say “She changed my life.” You are a concrete image of what I’m aiming to be — an elder in training.
CH: Your childhood imbued you with a certain wisdom that a young person your age quite often does not have. You have been through some stuff, like all of us have, but you seem to have learned from the struggles you went through as a child.
TS: Yeah. At ten years old, I was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease that makes my muscles weak and causes bumps on the skin. I experienced a lot of ableist alienation and harassment. I felt empowered getting into college and having access to frameworks like feminist philosophy, which says, “there are things that you can only know through experience.”
For me, it is important to lean into my story and experiences as a young person. It is both an identity and a lens for understanding the world.