World Pride 2021 only had two US headliners: singer-songwriter Todrick Hall and Sylvia Thomas — Indianapolis queer, trans, intersex poet, and activist. She was also one of only five from the US invited as scholars to attend a series of World Pride’s private events. This month, a collection of Sylvia’s poems are being published, as well as a short film about her work. Her accomplishments as an Indianapolis creative inspired us, and we were lucky enough to catch up with her to find out more about the root of her passions, her career’s greatest adventures, and how we can support the Indianapolis queer creative community.
Where did your passion for poetry come from?
Reflecting on poetry and how it came to be my vessel of expression, I reflect on the details of my upbringing. I grew up in a household with parents who were illiterate and had a lot to say. When I went to school and took history or English classes; I had to learn how to synthesize information, get to the point, and do it creatively. After reading something for class, my teacher would ask, “What does this mean?” This was such a challenge for me, thus inspiring me to work hard on my listening and comprehension skills. I became obsessed with the idea that there was something bigger in the simple stories I read. Harnessing these skills allowed me to create the building blocks of my poetry I write today.
However, what makes my work different from other writers, is my craft as a performer. I knew I wanted to become a poet when I saw how people read their work, not because of the material itself. I wanted the craft of my work to be in how I deliver it. Great messages get lost in how they are delivered. I want people to never miss a beat. I think I am a good writer, but I want my words to exist in the breaths of the reader to say out loud and make them feel real. I never know if I’m just a poet, a spoken word artist, both, or something else.
How did you get started professionally and grow to be internationally recognized?
I credit my success and inspiration to Black and or queer artists that cultivated space for me to explore and grow as an artist, such as elle roberts, Tatjana Rebelle, Gabrielle Patterson, Elysia Lucinda, Michelle Anastasia, Manon Voice, and Chantel Massey. I performed at open mics, regular shows, and special events. I don’t have many videos of my performances, but I don’t regret that. People would hear about me through word of mouth or some performance of mine and trust in me. I don’t know if I would have had all the opportunities if there were videos of me circulating on the internet.
As my name is being passed around to have at their events, I was asked to perform at an international conference for Pride festivals. At the time, I just knew I was performing at Eiteljorg Museum, I had no idea that my audience was full of organizers and curators of queer art from around the globe. From that opportunity, I made connections and relationships with these people and booked my first show overseas in Copenhagen, Denmark. I maintained that relationship and it led me to the biggest opportunity of going back to Copenhagen, but as the setting for World Pride, an event that exists every other year. The organizers wanted a full-circle moment, as I performed at the conference where they won the bid for World Pride. I should perform my poetry for the closing ceremony four years later. Maintaining relationships, being intentional, and understanding my audience has really made my career continue to flourish. You never know what opportunity or person will take you all over the world.
HOW DO YOUR POETRY AND ACTIVIST EFFORTS GO HAND-IN-HAND?
They compliment each other in such a dynamic way. In my full-time work, I am using my communication skills and expertise to help medical professionals and other providers understand the needs of the trans community. Oftentimes, I am expressing why trans people need resources, which involves statistics, data, and narrative that encapsulates our misery and violence we experience. When I spend all day pleaing, “Have mercy,” I must also make space in my life to show how we are alive. In the echo chambers of harsh realities I have experienced as a trans person, I must provide a history of my joy. My poetry is a call to being loved, understood, heard, and let live. It goes hand in hand with the tough work that follows. The mythos of Noah’s Ark rings true to my daily life. While my world is flooding with violence towards trans people, I understand my life is precious. As an artist, I must put stories that show you how I am living into the vessel, for future generations to know that we weren’t just “here” but we made change, created works, and found love in many ways.
Earlier this year, you performed at World Pride, with the only other US headliner being Todrick Hall. What was that experience like?
I went from being alone in my apartment for 18 months to being on the biggest stage of my life. The experience is something I am still processing. I went from pumping my own gas and eating frozen food in the Hoosier state all alone to being surrounded by thousands of Europeans and meeting a princess. I felt like I was performing at one of the glorified American music festivals with crowds farther beyond the eye can see. Hearing a roar of cheering unlike any coffee shop, theater, or ballroom could ever give me.
Where is your favorite place you’ve performed, and why?
My favorite place I’ve ever performed was in the city hall of Copenhagen where the world’s first ever same-sex partnership took place. I used a podium that had been used by generations of royalty, politicians, and other celebrities. It was a place where I took my time in performing and tried to take in where I was and how I got here. I wonder about who all has used that podium. History is a big theme in my work, and it’s rare that when I’m talking about history, I have a literal platform with its own history. In Indianapolis, my favorite stage is probably the White Rabbit in Fountain Square, where I have performed at many VOCAB shows.
You have a collection of poems coming out in November. What was your inspiration for these pieces?
“Twirl,” is a verb, it has a whimsical and joyful feel to it. While it is not an adjective, I would use it to describe my new collection. There are several twirls we take that are intentional and feel good. There are also some that happen when realities crash through. Sometimes we’re jolted and never prepared for a twirl of truth that can make us feel dizzy, confused, and scared. Ultimately, a twirl captures life in glimpses that are so beautiful, disgusting, and honest. This collection is two years of pieces that gave me hope through it all. Poetry that is affirming and challenging the ways I see my world. There are works that show my upbringing, my undertakings, and my understandings. All of it is a receipt of resilience.
Where can we buy your book?
You can buy my book on my website on November 12th for $20. You can also purchase it in person at Irvington Vinyl and Books for $15. My book release is Friday, November 12th at 10 East Arts HUB from 5 pm-9 pm with a reading starting at 6:30 pm. People are more than welcome to join, purchase a copy, stay for the show, twirl around, or continue on with their Friday evening.
How can the Indy Maven community – and Indianapolis as a whole — get more involved in supporting the trans women creative community?
Financially supporting trans women to create their art is the number one thing people can do. Exposure is not enough for us to express our talents. Give a platform, provide space, and show off our talent. If people want to keep a pulse on events, shows, or opportunities I participate in, they can follow me on Instagram (@sheissylvia). I also have a Patreon with an extensive archive of all of my works for just $3/month (www.patreon.com/sheissylvia).
Hopefully next summer, we will be able to host TRANSGLAM through Indy Pride once again, which is a giant showcase of talent and art by Trans people.
Learn more about the impact Sylvia is making both locally and across the world at www.sheissylvia.com.