Very rarely do you meet people for the first time who you feel like you've known for years, especially when your first conversations are over the phone and through social media. However, poet, teacher, and illustrator Annie Kate Jones was one of those people for me. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Annie Kate creates space for peace and the exploring of one's own imagination through experiential poetry workshops and stories of childlike wonder.
Recently, in one of my favorite Poet Spotlight conversations thus far, I spoke with Annie Kate about poetry's therapeutic power, taking ownership of your story, and not overthinking your creative identity but embracing it.
How did you get started writing poetry?
I had just lost a lot of people whom I thought were important to me, but were actually causing me terrible depression and self doubt. They were holding me back from experiencing an ounce of joy. So, I had to set out to find it on my own. With that, I began to write, which was new for me.
It seemed like writing was the only thing I could do. I felt like I wasn't surrounded by anybody who would truly hear me or who wasn't depressed themselves. I felt extremely alone, so I asked my mom for a typewriter for my birthday. I started writing poems on that and I started posting them just because that's what you do as a teenager and people loved them.
That felt really good because it wasn't my intention to gain attention from my poetry, but, rather, it felt so good to have genuine creation pour out of me and for people to appreciate it on a deeper level rather than me posting a picture of my face and have someone appreciate that.
I can't remember the fullness of it, but one of the poems I wrote was about how people slip away from us and how they sort of embody the different elements of solid, liquid and gas, and that was my first real poem I would say.
Progressively, I would just write more and more stuff and lot of it was stream of consciousness. I didn't really like format at all. The ability to just type and not worry about whether that word made sense there or if my syntax was correct, and really, really communicate to that hurt or excitement in myself, was liberating because I'd never had that. I was like, Man, if I can't talk to anyone else right now, which really sucks, (hopefully I will be able to soon) this is fine. This medium is great.
I was reading Perks of Being a Wallflower at that time, which I have read probably five times since. That book has really shaped my writer's journey because the protagonist, Charlie, is basically looking for what we're all looking for, which is belonging. I'd say that's what primarily is the underbelly of my writing – looking for place, and learning how to blend all the strange worlds that live inside your head while not thinking that you're so strange after all.
Where are you currently in your writing journey?
I really like to continually just break down these legalistic walls I build around myself as a writer, like I need to wake up in the morning and write three pages, drink a glass of water. That makes me sick to my stomach, honestly. I've read so many books that say there's this way to do this and this way to do that, but I've really just had to continually figure out what works. Right now, what works is – I hope people will maybe try this out – I like to take my bike out around the block around nighttime, put my earbuds in, and record myself speaking my thoughts as I go.
Last night was the first time I'd ever done that. As I was doing it, I was like, This feels so silly. This isn't art. Art is supposed to be you interact with the world and then you come to the page and create whatever you're going to create. But as I kept talking and hashing out my thoughts, I recognized that maybe we're not realizing that art is the two worlds meeting. How can we create experiential moments where we're creating at the same time rather than waiting until later because the two aren't separate?
The more I get into that, the more I think I'm going to have to distance myself from intentionally creating art that is going to get me a lot of likes on Instagram. This is a deep body of work that means something to me, obviously, and I can't continue to create if I feel like there are thousands of eyes watching me. I have to do it for myself.
Six months before I started writing poetry, I met my best friend, Lexi. She had a typewriter in her room. It was blue. The first night I ever went into her room, she had six of her friends there with us. There were candles and string lights, and there were tapestries everywhere. It just felt like Where the Wild Things Are but in a room.
As 30 minutes went by, there would be a knock on the window and someone would come in through the window. The room kept filling up with people, and they were passing around her blue typewriter and writing poems to each other. It was during that era of hurt, but I had just made all these new friends randomly out of nowhere, and I felt so good. I felt so understood.
It was in that night that I took home five or six poems written to me by complete strangers and I still have those and they're framed in my room. I just thought, Those people saw me, and they just spoke to places in me that I didn't even tell them, and they represent that horizon that I see that I need to keep walking towards.
Writing has always been that, Okay yes, I have to keep standing up. I have to keep letting others know that they're seen and keep affirming myself in that way. The medium came to life for me from those people.
Why do you see words as powerful?
Probably because I've read a lot of amazing stories, and I know how they've shaped me. Even if they're completely imaginative. The ways they've stuck in my brain like old fruit peels. Words have just made everything seem so interesting and livelier, and I think that's how we exist – by narrative and sharing stories from folktales and things like that. We would not have the perspectives that we do without those things.
Some of my favorite things I've read are completely fictitious, but yet they've given me this very interesting way to view the world – that everything has inherent value, that I could probably sit on this roof where I am right now and write about the weird looking tree across from me and be completely content with that.
I think poetry helps me not be bored. It helps me chew up little bits of the world at a time and really digest them rather than living in shallowness. I'm surrounded by shallowness a lot, and I know we all are and we can't be pissed about that, but I just love how poetry calls for you to look deeper. There's no excuse. You have to be in that space if you want to do your work, and you don't have to be a poet to do that. I want everyone around me to know that they can have that experience with life, that they can really speak to their surroundings.
How did you get started leading poetry workshops in your community?
I started a kids' creativity day camp about three summers ago, and I wanted to do that because there are art camps that I've attended in my past, but there were never art camps that spoke to a deep place in me that said, "You are allowed to have a conversation with the worlds that you hold inside of yourself. You're allowed to ask the big, uncomfortable questions. You're allowed to go there without feeling like you're doing something wrong. Then, whenever you do go there, you're allowed to make it pretty and look the way that you want."
Just that sense of ownership – not bad entitlement, but the kind of entitlement that makes it easier to grab hold of your life and actually do something with it. So I did that with kids for two summers, and then I thought, I really love doing this with kids, but I think it's time to move towards doing it with young adults and adults. It was a lot harder because it was less abstract. It had to be more concrete. Adults were like, I need to know an equation on how this works. So it was kind of hard and really scary too, but I remember the first workshop I ever taught was a group of 30.
What was that first experience leading an adult workshop like?
Intense. I was doing it alongside one of my good friends, Justin, and we just basically talked about how, in life, you have to not only embrace beauty, which is what we all want to do and what's easy, but you also have to embrace every single other emotion and you can't selectively numb your experience, so, in order to open yourself to all that, there isn't a pretty way to do it – you just have to do so.
So we lit some incense, we all had our dinner, we shared a meal, we had wine, we turned on some ambient music, and, probably for the first time for a lot of those people, they allowed their minds to go somewhere that they had never gone before. I think that's the most freeing element of poetry in itself, but also having that experience surrounded by 30 other adults alongside yourself and then sharing those words and every single person crying. It was heaven, man.
We can experience things like this, and we can make them the commonality. We don't have to wait once a year to get together with our best friends just to be vulnerable. It can be active and how that happens is you keep a journal and you just be present with yourself. So that was my whole intention with creating the adult workshops – just helping people understand they can be present with themselves in that way.
What's the experience you seek to create in your workshops?
It has to be a balance of knowing that just because you are setting up the environment doesn't mean you're in charge. It's basically the same thing for Car Window Poetry. You want to set up the bare bones of what this project can be, but it feels wrong to be the dictator of anything because this isn't yours to begin with. You're just a vessel and a vein.
Having to remind myself of that days before teaching a workshop is really important – that even if I don't plan anything ahead of time and just let the words of the introduction move through me, that's okay and people will understand what I'm saying. But I also really like to plan, so I usually end up writing out what I'm going to say and then freaking out beforehand if I don't memorize it.
Usually, I like to set the space by knowing beforehand that the room feels good, the lights feel nice, and just that people feel welcomed when they walk in the door, and have a drink in their hand – just the necessary stuff. But also, I'm getting better at this, and this is honestly why I've taken a few steps back from teaching right now: I want to really rest in knowing that this isn't for my fame and glory, that I don't want people to walk away from my workshops and think, Maybe that wasn't the best experience. Those are just my own insecurities talking, but I want people to feel like they really were enriched, like they really, really dug deep.
Currently, I'm just trying to figure out how deep to go with that. What's the balance of what I do need to say and what I keep quiet and let them come to on their own? But I think that sort of where I'm at is providing a solid theme, a strong structure of what we might be talking about, so, for the last one, it was writing for health, so obviously the people who signed up knew kind of what they were getting themselves into.
I wanted that to be more focused on the therapy of writing, so my friend Lucy and I crafted a couple questions that acted as prompts. I gave a short, little descriptor at the beginning once everyone was in their chairs and just said, "You know, anyone could be up here saying these things to you, but, since no one is, that's why I'm here." I realized I was waiting for someone to do that for me for years, and I just had to get up and do it myself.
I'm super transparent in being like, I am not a certified teacher. I just feel called to let you guys know that it's important to have a deeper relationship with yourself and with your story and with all of it. So I plopped down some prompts and let everyone space out and we just write and then group back together and talk.
What would you say to someone who's struggling with embracing their creative identity?
Well, in the famous words of a girl who was not nice to me in 10th grade, she said, "Ugh, you just change all the time." In response, I said, "Isn't that the point?"
At the time, I was just being snarky, but, years later, I thought, Isn't that the truth? If we're not constantly changing, then there really isn't a point. To break that down, I think how we can learn to embrace any type of identity is to just maybe take the intensity of the word itself away because I think people can be scared away by "poet" or "painter" and think they have to be Michelangelo or Shakespeare when you really don't.
When people say, "I'm not a poet," that may be just a response of "I'm nothing great," but it can also translate to, if they know anything about poetry and what it does to people and how it opens them up, "I'm too afraid to realize how I really feel." That's what one of my favorite poets, David Whyte, says. He says the reason why humans don't engage with their rawest emotions is because they think that a path without heartbreak still exists. Also, the reason why people don't want to write is because they know that, when they write something down and they realize that it's true, they can't take it back.
I even had a moment of "Do I want to call myself a poet?" because that's like a lifetime of honesty I'm not sure if I can deal with. But there are going to be identities thrown at you all your life. Some that you don't like, some that you do like, but you can't put too much effort into trying to understand what must occur to be that identity but rather just walking towards it and not overthinking it, which is one of my main struggles. Lean into it, and don't ask too many questions.
What is the story you're seeking to tell in your poetry?
I think in order to realize what kind of narrative you want to tell, you actually have to look at the narrative that's already being told and sort of what you want to change about it.
For me, my story is for sure having to deal with being a woman, being raised in an incredibly conservative family, where asking big questions about theology and the big picture never really happened, not gaining a strong perspective on what it means to be a woman empowered to be uprightly individual, and I'm an incredibly progressive Christian I would say, so I'm just having to deal with a whole slew of things that really, really throw me off.
So I would say mostly, putting an umbrella over all of that, my story is seeing this person of who you want to be far off waving at you in the distance and knowing that would be a very idealistic way to live your life – just trying to constantly be a different version of yourself. I think it's incredibly helpful and I know for a fact that it's supposed to be in my writing practice and something I share with the world because something we need to do is just learn how to create a vision for who we want to be and the depth that contains.
That means unraveling how you feel about this, how you feel about that, how you feel about whatever triggers you during your day, but it doesn't mean you can just focus on one thing. Every time your coattail gets snagged on something, you have to be like, Okay, let me sit with this. Let me breathe with this. So it's that, but it's also a balance of understanding, Yes, Im Annie, and I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but I could be anybody.
Our experience living on this earth is so subjective and it matters, but, in a really weird way and it's going to be strange to hear me say this, it doesn't really matter. There are things that are worth your attention and worth thinking about for 24 hours, and there are things that are worthy of disposal and not even giving a second thought because it's trivial and it's wasting your energy.
My story is learning how to move through life with so much charisma and energy and love for just how beautiful it all is, but also not letting that become passive. I'd say that's where I am right now – just going deep with my personal experience and helping others do the same but also not getting too twisted in ideologies and religion, and just being, and just flowing with your impulses but being divinely wise.
There are a lot of paradoxes but they're flowing well, so that's what I'm going with.
What are you consuming right now that you love?
I just finished A Wrinkle in Time. I find that I produce things and the art that I want to create a lot more rigidly whenever I'm reading books about how to write. But whenever I'm reading stories that talk about children time traveling to different orbits and cosmos, that's whenever I write the stuff that I want to write.
This series is making my dreams all crazy and making me a happier person because I have stories to share with people and books to recommend, so I think that the stuff I'm trying to lean more towards now is roundedness and not just feeding my desire to learn how to be a better writer, but rather feeding my whole human and my imaginary side, my side that's hungry for just a good kid's story – honestly, it's been years since I've read a good book like that. So that's my most recent book, and I seriously want to read it again right now. There's a series of five though, so maybe I'll jump to the second one.
As far as my favorite poets, for sure David Whyte. I found him really spontaneously and maybe that's why I love him so much. I ran into a half-priced bookstore just randomly. I felt like I had to go there, and I ran straight to the poetry section and found the title that interested me, and it was called The House of Belonging. I've probably given it as a gift to like 20 people, and it's literally changed all of our lives. It's so good, and I can probably recite the first poem from it that I ever read.
Car Window Poetry is a movement of people gathering their friends, writing encouraging poems, and sharing those poems on car windows. What words of encouragement would you like to speak into someone's life today?
You're doing great.
Because maybe it's been a while since you've heard that. You're doing great even when you feel like you're not doing great.
To learn more about Annie Kate, you can check out her website here. It features a collection of her childlike stories and illustrations, as well as workshop announcements. If you're based in or around Tulsa, be sure to sign up for one of her workshops here. Also, make sure you follow Annie Kate on Instagram to keep up with everything she's up to!