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Cleo WadeThe Influential Poet Turning Girl Power into Woman PowerBY SADE LYTHCOTT
PHOTO BY THOMAS WIRTHENSOHN
ISSUE No 5
The Influential Poet Turning Girl Power into Woman Power
Through her powerful words and magnetic presence, poet Cleo Wade has built an ever expanding community of like minded creators and cultural visionaries. Among them is one of her closest friends and National Black Theater CEO Sade Lythcott, whom we asked to interview Cleo for this issue. The two sat together on a cozy winter morning at the New York EDITION for the conversation below.
BY SADE LYTHCOTT
PHOTO BY THOMAS WIRTHENSOHN
ISSUE No 5
here is something about Clee. Ask anyone who has encountered one of her public art installations, scrolled through her Instagram feed with nearly 400K followers, or watched her TED talk—a prelude to Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life, her much anticipated debut of empowering poems and illustrations, in bookstores now. The first time she and I met a decade ago on the dance floor of a friend’s house party, she spun me in circles with her words; and I have felt high off them ever since. I guess that’s the thing—words are her currency, and she generously spends them on any and everybody who could use a little heart talk to brighten their day. Full disclosure: Clee is my Soul Sister. But let’s face it: Cleo Wade is hundreds of thousands of people’s sister. Her simple verses about how to live more radically and with purpose are actually complex algorithms aggregated from experiences, ancestral wisdom, and good old-fashioned downloads from the universe, aka magic. She stirs this alchemy into the perfect nugget of advice, the most quintessential mantra, or affirmations that have literally saved peoples lives—including her own.
Hi, love. How funny that we are doing this so formally.
I know, right?
I am actually genuinely interested in the answers to my questions.
Well I hope so.
Ok. Here we go. You’ve become known for your positive messaging and poems. Do you give yourself a daily pep talk? What do you tell the girl who has a good word for everything?
I work with mantras in a big way. I’m really scared every time I speak publicly. Whenever I’m about to go on stage, I use the mantra, “As long as you’re yourself, you can’t f**k it up.” I say it over and over and over again. One I use a lot is, “Remember not to care about the things you don’t even care about.” Because a lot of times, we just get hijacked around what we feel should affect us.
This year, you found yourself interviewing feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and Diane von Furstenberg. Did they give you any advice or words that made it into your writings?
The two of them really inspire me to make sure I’m constantly telling my story as I build my life. Because the next generation doesn’t need us to tell them what to do. But if we show them our templates, that might be where the person who is lost can start. And then we want them to smash them wide open, and evolve them and change them, and do a million things that are 10 times beyond what we could have ever thought of. But if we don’t really tell our stories from where we are, we don’t give the people that starting place they need.
Labels abound in referring to you, from Instagram Poet to the Millennials’ Oprah; from It girl to Activist to Socialite, and now Game Changer. Do these labels hijack the purpose of the work?
I feel like if we give something a title, or the power to make us feel like we’re on top of the world, we give it equal weight to feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. Instead of letting something like these hold me, or weigh me down,
I let them fuel me to exist beyond these titles. Honestly, there’s just so much work to do in our world; I don’t feel like I have the luxury to think about these things too long. At the end of the day, I make stuff. I make words and I make moments, and my intention every day is to make at least one person feel less alone in the world.
Speaking of storytelling, you just gave birth to your first “baby”— Heart Talk. How does it feel having completed the book?
People tell you that writing a book is so hard [but] I had this feeling that I know what I want to write, I know what I think is important to me and I think it’s important to other people, especially at this moment in time. So I thought it would be a breeze. And it was just not. It was definitely one of those things that was all joy and not too much fun, which ironically is a line I know I’m stealing from a book about raising children.
Today when we were getting ready for this interview you opened up to a page in your book and you were just kind of like, “I needed that today.”
I did! It was a page that said: “you are more okay than you think.” I remember when I first wrote it, I wrote to my editor and said, “I want to write this really big and have it take up its own page because it’s that important.” Even though it’s only a handful of words, I just knew that someone would have the day where they needed it to be said to them, and it needed to be that big.
As a writer, do you think about your life in chapters? If so, what’s the name of this chapter, and what would the next chapter be titled?
It’s funny you ask that, because when I went to write my book, I specifically was like, “I don’t want chapters.” I wanted every page to be its own episode, and its own thought. I look at my life in that way too. I don’t have chapters, because I take it one day at a time. I take it one poem at a time, one article at a time. I do that because it’s extremely important for my self-care to be really gentle and delicate with myself, and to not get too caught up in the momentum of any one thing, because what I don’t want to do is build a company that I don’t want to work for, or work in. I don’t want to build a career that doesn’t make me feel like I have a life. I find that when I take it one day at a time, I know that I am building a space that I actually also want to show up in, which I think is crucial.
That’s beautiful. You have an uncanny way of making everything digestibly simple, but utterly poignant. I was wondering if you would play a little game with me? I’m going to give you a word, and you’re going to give me a Cleo Wade definition of it. Cool?
The belief and practice that the genders are equal.
Doing what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are, and in your own way.
The place where your exhale feels best.
Last word: this is the Game Changer issue, so “game changer.”
Someone who knows the importance of change. Any game changer is someone who stays curious.
Game changers are learners. There are people who think they’ve hit this certain point and they’re ready to cruise, and there are people who are excited that they’re constantly a work in progress, and are excited to be different than they were the day, or the month, or the year before. They are the game changers