May 8, 2014 | by Kathi Wolfe
I’m your Venus

Maybe you think poetry is only for straight white men hobnobbing on Mount Olympus.  If that’s your take, you haven’t met Venus Thrash, a Washington black, lesbian poet whose debut poetry collection “The Fateful Apple” is just out from the Hawkins Publishing Group.

Written with deceptive simplicity, poignancy and incisiveness, the poetry in this volume reflects on subjects ranging from Oprah to same-sex marriage to the blues singer Willie Mae Thornton.

The poems in “The Fateful Apple” “… reside in … the ‘matrix’ of the blues,” Keith D. Leonard, Ph.D., author of “Fettered Genius: the African-American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights,” writes in the forward to the book, “the intersection of shared history, artistic techniques and sensibilities … which marks this most defining of our cultural forms.”

Thrash, 45 and the mother of a 6-year-old son, told the Blade in a telephone interview that she wrote her first poem 40 years ago.

“I was in first grade. It was a poem about my mother,” she says. “I was a hit in the school district language arts festival. In third grade, a poem I wrote about happiness was published in the school system quarterly newsletter.”

Though D.C. has been her “adopted” home for more than 20 years, Thrash’s roots are in the deep South.

“My childhood summers were in Rincon and Sylvania, Georgia,” she says. “My memory is full of ghosts.”

“I am seven/I want to be an angel/… because I have never been an angel,” Thrash writes in the poem “Angel. “I must act like a lady/… I have never acted like a lady/ … I have demanded to be called Vince.”

“I’ve never been in the closet,” Thrash, who has a master’s degree in fiction and poetry from American University, says. Early on, “I knew that there was something different about me,” she says. “I search for the word for it for years. I liked girls. I understood girls. I didn’t understand why I was the only one experiencing that.”

It was only when she grew older and read more that Thrash could “pin it down.” Now she’s out and proud. “I am what I am,” she said referencing Ralph Ellison’s iconic novel “Invisible Man.”

Her journey to this pride and self-acceptance wasn’t always easy.

“I was brought up in the southern black Baptist church. When I was young, there was this wonderful, great spirit of love and acceptance,” Thrash says. “I knew the God of my youth to be a loving God.”

But as Thrash became a teenager, this started to change.

“A new God was introduced to me who was vengeful and intolerant. I didn’t know that other God,” she says. “I had to reconcile my sexuality, my relationship to God and to the church. … I knew that the God who made me was loving and tolerant.”

“Mama has said I am her angel/Daddy loves every loud-laughing, tree-climbing part of me,” Thrash writes in “Angel.”

She credits her parents with helping her accept herself.

“They always knew I was ‘funny,’ that I was a tomboy. I never felt unwanted,” she says. “My parents had struggles growing up in the segregated South. They were strict. It wasn’t ‘Ozzie and Harriet.’ But I felt a sense of love.”

Over the years, Thrash has grown into the writer and poet she is today. At American University, she discovered her love and comfort level with academia.

“There I found that I’m like a sponge. I’m intellectually curious,” Thrash says. “I was the only student of color. But I was able to thrive there. I was so fully accepted. Even with my varied identities,I never felt rejected.”

Thrash, who was a finalist in the 2012 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize and the 2009 Arktoi Books Poetry Prize, loves teaching.

“I feel passionate about it. I love interacting with students,” she says. “Not only am I teaching in that exchange, I’m also learning. I’ve taught in diverse settings — in women’s correctional facilities and under-served high schools.”

When she writes her poetry, Thrash isn’t thinking about changing the world.

“I’m well aware of social justice issues. But, I’m writing from a place that’s ancient and unconscious,” she says. “What’s born out of that, may, with of the grace of God, have some effect on social issues.”

Though never preachy, Thrash’s poetry often offers an incisive take on social justice issues. Written before same-sex marriage was legalized in D.C., her poem “Uncivil” is a pointed, yet joyous rebuke to any government that dictates whom anyone can love.

“There will be no parchment certificate/stamped with any state’s approval/confirming we’re married or in love,” Thrash writes. “But we will jump over a brand new straw/broom, we will light candles & pour red/wine into the earth where our ancestors sleep.”

In her poem “Oprah Loves Gayle,” Thrash takes friendship out of the tabloids.

“I was disgusted was how their relationship was displayed in news cycles,” Thrash says. “People can’t believe two strong black women can be friends without being lovers. The world has always felt threatened by powerful women.”

Thrash’s poems affirm love among women. In her poem “To the Fems,” she writes, “Who would love us/short-haired,/butch women.”

“Death come/stalking early/before daylight catch her/pissy drunk, beat bloody or rocked/tender-slow in the arms/of women who/love her,” Thrash writes in “Big Mama’s Finest Hour,” a poem for blues singer Willie May Thornton.

Thrash is a vital part of the D.C. poetry scene. In 2012, she was a featured poet at Split This Rock, a biennial festival that highlights poetry and social justice.

“Venus Thrash brings her full self to her poetry …{Her} poems are lush and erotic and angry and celebratory,” Sarah Browning, Split This Rock executive director, said in an e-mail.

“It’s scary when you first read a poem aloud,” Thrash says. “Then you’re aware of what went right and what went wrong, of its emotional and political meaning.”

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