A year of Black Art; Real Stories providing creative spaces for Black voices

A litte over a year ago, I linked up with Co-Founder and then Chief Editor of Black Art; Real Stories Shawn Boursiquot to chat about what I deemed a "wall-breaking literary platform." BARS had garnered buzz –  some enthusiastic, others unnecessarily bothered – around the University of Iowa community. The project, which produces a bi-annual literary magazine, presented a platform for Black voices – but not necessarily Black stories – that were not receiving the space and nurturing needed to flourish at a predominantly white institution. 

About one year later, September to be exact, I sat with Boursiquot again to get the latest need-to-know about a project that began with "a cool idea" and transformed into an experience for countless Black voices across campus. 

Black Art; Real Stories will be accepting submissions for the Fall 2016 issue until Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 11:59 p.m. Submit your piece here


Melanin Voices: Is there excitement surrounding the upcoming one year anniversary of Black Art; Real Stories? 

Shawn Boursiquot: I don't want to say that I'm not excited about it because that would make it seem like I don't deem it as important and that's not what I'm trying to get across. The mindset that we're in is longevity so we do see it as an accomplishment, but we don't feel like that's the mark to start celebrating. When it comes to five years, 10 years yeah, but we know we want this longevity. We're just focused right now on building. 

MV: For most people, when something turns one year it's always a big deal because there was always the possibility that it could have failed. And so celebrating two well received magazines [in the span of a year] seems like a cause to break out some balloons. 

Boursiquot: We don't think in terms of failure or that possibility, but to your point of celebration we celebrate each issue. That is where our efforts are each semester. Each issue is something to be celebrated, the work in there is something to be celebrated and we have reasons behind that. We have the gallery [in the Hubbard Commons of the Iowa Memorial Union] that happens every spring and new projects that are developing and I think that's one reason why we're not in the mode of "let's celebrate and throw a big event for a year" cause right now there's other events and opportunities lined up and that's where the focus is. 

MV: Tell me a little bit about your most proud moment. 

Boursiquot: The gallery. I remember walking by it one time and it being the first time I was reflective of "look at what you and your team put on campus." It was kind of symbolic to say these words are right in front of you and people can choose to look at them or to not look at them, but it's the idea of presence.

What meant more to me was over the summer being in contact with the BARS members on the exec team and them reaching out to say how much they appreciated the bond that was starting to form in that arts community, but then the fact that we were having conversations over the summer about art, about writing...

You're coming from a place of a community and then how does that community expand out to the rest. We're invested in each other now moving forward to where not every meeting is about "yo what are we doing about the next issue or marketing schemes" but "come with your piece let's workshop that" or "what are you doing, let's talk about it." Now you have the Nates and Marquises, where they're going out to different venues and performing and the fact that they can rep BARS or talk about BARS not just for promo purposes... Just seeing them be enthusiastic about that is very heartwarming. I'm very proud of that. 

MV: What are some things BARS plans to do differently this year around?

Boursiquot: More of a focused vision. Last year, it was a lot of bouncing around and kind of chaotic and that's not to say we don't have new things because we get presented with opportunities each day and I'm very excited for those, but I think we're treading a little softly with those. We want to make the emphasis on each other and the bond that we have and making sure that the people leading BARS are actually true to the writing and true to first themselves as writers. It's not a position that's just work, it's a community...

Just focusing on the magazine and the selections that go into that and actually building credible work. Last year we put a lot of works on the website, like every week we tried to put a piece up, but we're doing away with that because we want to highlight and hold people to a standard. I don't want to oversaturate. I want pieces to stand out. 

MV: Does this mean that BARS plans to do away with other activities such as workshops, poetry slams, etc. 

BoursiquotThose will still be there, perhaps less events... I want to do an open mic obviously, but everyone has their specialized positions. Last year everyone had their positions, but there was still a lot of bouncing around and in between tasks. There are clear cut guidelines now. By cutting out stuff like posting every week on the website...you have more free time to make things impactful. Beyond being more organized, it's about everybody being on the same page, in the same mindset. 

MV: Given the change in structure, will there be more rejection of pieces this time around?

BoursiquotAbsolutely. It depends on the market of who submits to the magazine. You could have 10 people submit and 10 people get in... But I want to do away with the idea that "yeah we got a platform, let's all get our pieces in there." No, this is still a literary magazine. I don't want to seem harsh saying that [because] it could be a number of reasons why you get turned down...

You're not just treating individual pieces. If you really analyze the selections that are going into the magazines, there's themes to it. There's an art to it. There's individual pieces, but it's a project itself. I don't want people to feel discouraged if they get rejected, but that's also the life of a writer. 

MV: How do you think BARS has made an impact on the Black community this year? 

BoursiquotYou gotta ask the Black community. laughs 

MV: Well, your perspective. 

BoursiquotYou know it's nuts I never sit in my room and think "wow this is making such a change in people's lives." I just look at it like this is something that needs to be done and passed down. You hear other people talk about it because you've given them a platform. Even the things that people can't see like being asked to perform here and there...

People are now trying to bridge these identities and perspectives. People are recognizing the need for Black writers at the university. People are recognizing that they need their platform, they need their spaces and that's not always easy and there's still many oppressed voices. 

MV: You and Caleb Rainy [co-founder of BARS] are seniors now, which means you'll be passing the project on very soon...

Boursiquot: It's passed. laughs. I have no role within BARS. I'm just the website manager. 

MV: And you're okay with that idea of passing it on?

BoursiquotYes absolutely. Pure confidence in my team. Right now, I'm just the linker. It's very early so of course they don't know all the ins and outs. Right now their focus is the editorial and working on the pieces and my part is to slowly bring in people they're going to work with in the future and logistics they shouldn't worry about like setting up events and opportunities. 

MV: Was there ever a time when you were concerned about passing it on?

BoursiquotAbsolutely. When I first started... what scared me was the fact that I knew it had to be passed down. After the first issue, it was like "you did it but you gotta start thinking what's it going to look like when it starts getting passed down." I went through a phase where I tried to make constitutions and little guidelines and figured out that's not the best way to approach writing. It's a different vibe. It wasn't personal. There was no connection.\

I feel the shift in that. Now we are actually building our bond and [I'm] letting them know "this is your creative space as much as it is mines."

MV: What do you want to see from BARS a year from now, with all these new changes?

BoursiquotI just want to see submissions spike. I just want to see more awareness, not even from a standpoint that more people know about BARS, more so from a standpoint of considering themselves a part of the community. You might have someone who does consider themselves a part of the community, but they submitted one piece and they don't talk about it. I want to see them engage, have these workshops where you see more and more people coming. I want to talk about writing.

Ironically, BARS and having an outside space made me more comfortable in the classroom. It made me more confident in my literary abilities. I stopped going into classrooms and thinking "oh I gotta be the best" – whatever that means in terms of writing – and started looking at it like how you really should be, which is "what can I tell that's unique to me that nobody else can tell."

On the basis, you think Black Art Real Stories, but people have different stories. It's not just Black stories. 


Black Art; Real Stories will be accepting submissions for the Fall 2016 issue until Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 11:59 p.m. Submit your piece here