Breathe: A Conversation with Richmond Poet Laureate Roscoe Burnems

This week spoken word artist and Poet Laureate of Richmond, Virginia, Roscoe Burnems, stops by to chat with the Mental Health Mamas. Roscoe uses his poetry and performance to discuss trauma, resilience and the human experience. Tune in to hear Roscoe speak openly about his background, mental health, and fatherhood plus he shares two of his amazing poems!

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Tina: Hey everyone, I'm Tina

Serena: And I'm Serena, and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Tina: Welcome to No Need to Explain. We are so glad you're here. 

Serena: First as always a quick disclaimer.

Tina: We come to you not as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health. 

Serena: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You'll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, 

Tina: A little while ago, I was lucky enough to attend an event with Richmond, Virginia's first ever poet laureate. I wasn't really sure what to expect. So I used to teach poetry as a fifth grade teacher, and while many of my colleagues kind of approached poetry with a very classical sense of the genre like, here's a haiku, and here's a whatever, very kind of cookie cutter, I recognize that writing, powerful poetry, it really does need to come from somewhere deep down, so this cookie cutter approach didn't really work for the kids in my class. So interestingly, our guest today, he's an amazing poet and approaches the subject with incredible creativity, making deep meaning and very connective pieces of work.

Serena: Roscoe Burnems is a Richmond, Virginia native, a poet, published author, spoken word artist, comedian, educator, father, husband, and Richmond, Virginia's inaugural poet laureate. He has dedicated his craft to entertaining and educating. He has become a layered performer using his many talents to discuss trauma, resilience, and the human experience. He's an award-winning slam poet, founder, and member of the Writer's Den poetry slam team and collective. With Roscoe as a coach, the Writer's Den has been consistently ranked top 10 in the country, in addition to putting on poetry based events and poetry slams, the collective conducts writing and performance workshops for youth and adults. He is the author of three published works and an all-around awesome guy. Roscoe, welcome to the podcast. 

Roscoe: Thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited to be a part of this. 

Tina: Awesome. As I said, I randomly, although I do not believe in random encounters quite honestly, I met you at an event and I knew we had to have you on the podcast. After that super-impressive introduction, get real with the mental health mamas and tell us a bit of your story. 

Roscoe: Awesome. As an artist, I've been doing this for, I mean, probably since about 2004, 2005. Writing has always been like a passion of mine, and it's always been a therapeutic process for me. I fell in love with storytelling and stuff like that at a young age, and I think I started taking poetry more seriously, probably towards the middle of high school. It was really just me getting feelings that I had a hard time expressing, experiences that I had seen or gone through, just getting them out onto paper. It wasn't something that I was really comfortable talking about yet. Writing just became this outlet for me. I was dealing with depression, like, probably somewhere around middle school, and just so many things, a lot of external factors to that. My mom was going through a lot with my brother. I was getting bullied at school. I was having some struggles with growing up with my dad being gone, and trying to reconcile that at a really young age. My mom, bless her heart, was just taking care of a ton of people.

It was a lot of us in the house. It was my mom, my brother, and I, and then my grandmother, my great grandmother, and my aunt. Six of us in the house. Two bedroom house, my mom and I, and my brother and I actually shared a room until I was 13. It was just a lot. It was a lot going on, and it was fairly overwhelming, and I was super depressed from middle school, and that was like my first suicide attempt. My first suicide attempt, I was 13, and I tried to swallow a bunch of pills, and thankfully, I was not successful. 

Tina: We're thankful too. We are very thankful too.

Roscoe: It was just a lot, and then my great grandmother had passed, who, she helped raise me, she was the person who met me at the bus stop every day, and then my brother went to jail the next year. So it was a lot of trauma on top of trauma, a lot of grief on top of grief, and poetry was valid. Poetry was the way that I was able to process some of these emotions through high school and then going into my adulthood, and I fell in love with it. I found that there was a community that appreciated this art form. I found open mics, and I found other poets who, they resonated with my story, they had their own issues with mental health, and depression, and suicide ideation, and things of that nature. So I found a home within these artists, this community of artists, and then I never looked back. I found that writing these poems helped me, and that sharing these poems helped other people, and I wanted to commit my career and my life to doing that more often. 

Serena: So how did it shift for you from writing these things down that you weren't comfortable sharing with other people to being able to share them? Was there a shift or was it gradual? How did that work? 

Roscoe: So I was sharing some of this stuff in high school, like towards my junior year, I had an English teacher, shout out to Ms. Gardner, who was super encouraging. She was my 11th grade English teacher, she loved poetry, and she was super nice, very cool, and one of the few teachers, or the probably the only teacher that I think about it, that I was comfortable sharing my work with sharing things that I had written in my journals, and things of that nature. So she was like, this is really good, or you really know about metaphor, and she was really encouraging, and encouraged me to do these poetry cafe things at the high school. So she encouraged me to come through and read whatever I was comfortable with, or write something for it. 

And then I had a friend of mine who knew about these open mics, and she was like, well you're really good, you're really talented, you should go and read at these things. I've seen people read their poetry at these things. And so I just gave it a shot, it was really just kind of just kind of jumping out headfirst and just kind of seeing what it was about. And like I saw other people sharing, I think seeing other people share their vulnerable stories, or you know, whatever was on their mind, whether it was music or poetry or whatever their talent was, made me feel a little more comfortable sharing it. And so I just went ahead and did it. I think I ended up sharing something at the first open mic I ever went to, honestly. And it got met with a lot of support. And I felt comfortable. It was a risk. It was a gamble. But one, I'm very glad that I rolled the dice on that one.

Serena: And so growing up in your family, did you guys talk about mental health?

Roscoe: Oh, not at all. No. I didn't even know depression was a word. Until probably like my, my, man might have been like my, probably my junior senior of high school. Now I knew I was feeling what I was feeling, right? I knew I knew I knew I was experiencing what I was experiencing. But I didn't have any, anything to attach. I didn't know, I didn't really understand words like trauma. I didn't really understand words like depression. I didn't even know that was a thing. And then I had a counselor at my high school. She was Miss Knight when I was in high school. She's married now. So she's not Miss Knight anymore. Shout out to Latoya Knight, because she was the first one who really introduced me to like some of these terms to describe what I was, what I was experiencing. She's like, I feel like you've experienced a lot of trauma. I feel like you're, you know, you seem like you're depressed. And I didn't, I didn't really know what that meant. So she had to kind of walk me through that. And I didn't have the verbiage. And I think that's what happens sometimes with, with youth is that they don't have the verbiage to express what's going on with them, which is why these conversations are so important. 

Tina: Yeah. 

Roscoe: But at home, no, there was no, mental health wasn't a thing. Depression wasn't a thing. I grew up in a really traditional black Baptist house. And if you were depressed, then you just needed some Jesus. That's more, you need to pray about it. But depression, mental health, suicide, that's not even a, that's not a thing. We don't do that. So it got, it got dismissed. If I did bring it up, it got dismissed. 

Tina: Yeah. So there's so much there, right? So much, I think it's a cultural thing for sure we hear. I don't think it was Jesus for us, but it certainly was like stop crying and just get on with it, because that's how we, that's how we dealt with things in my house. Like, right Serena, would you say? 

Serena: Yeah, pull yourself up by your boot straps, just to stop crying and get over it. 

Tina: Yeah. So, so let's delve into that a little bit more for the people who clearly still might not have these open conversations in their household. It's clearly, I have chosen to be more open and talk more openly with my own people about this. And people that surround me, not just my own children, but everyone. So talk a little bit about the advice you'd give to youth and adults. And even your parenting, like, how is it different than when you grew up? 

Roscoe: So my parenting is extremely different. I'll start there. Because we're, we're, we're a family that tries to talk about everything. And in as much detail as we can and whether that's, if whether it's mental health, whether it's, it's, you know, I have a teenager at home. So whether it's mental health, whether it's sex and relationships and, you know, all the things that come with the human experience, right? Like, you know, entering into adulthood or, you know, all that kind of stuff. We're like, we try to be very honest about all these things, which is, is complete opposite of what I got growing up, where a lot of things were kind of pushed under the rug or kind of like, kind of, you know, hush-hush and, you know, we don't talk about these things. We definitely don't talk about these things openly with other people, let alone with, with family. 

And it is, it is really layered. There is a cultural element to that, you know, I mean, you know, Black cultures have a hard time talking about, you know, depression and, and, you know, it makes us feel weak, we?re people who are, who pride ourselves on, on resilience and being able to kind of just push through whatever. And, you know, I was a, I was a, you know, the only boy in the house. And so it was like, you got a man up, you know, you got, you can't be sensitive, you can't cry, you can't do this, you can't do that. So like, there was that, in addition to it to being like kind of a generational thing, where like, we just, just older generations just didn't have the understanding of what mental health looked like and, and having those conversations and normalizing in those conversations.

So it was just like all these different layers. And so in having, you know, I'm a, I'm a father of three now and, and having my own kids, it's like, okay, I want to do away with all of that. And, you know, I mean, we're going to, we're going to approach this the complete opposite way. We're going to talk about all the feelings, right? We're going to validate all the feelings and, and, and talk about solutions and we're going to talk about, um, how these things can show up and how do you express this? And when do you need a break? When do you need a mental health day? Um, you know, um, and normalize these things so they don't, it doesn't, it isn't taboo.

And then they don't feel like they're the only person experiencing these things. Cause that was what, those, the, was a big deal for me was like, I didn't know anybody else who was depressed. I didn't even know depression was a thing. So I didn't, I definitely didn't know anybody else who was also suffering quote unquote from depression. So now it's like, I'm, I'm dealing with all this trauma and I'm trying to process this kind of or, um, or more so trying to cope. And, but I also feel very alone. You know what I mean? I don't have any, I don't have a support system. I don't have anybody to talk to. I don't have anybody who I think is going to understand what I'm going through because I think I'm the only one going through this.

So that's a part of normalizing these conversations so that people don't feel like they're alone in this. And it's easier to find a support system when you feel like you're not alone.

Tina: Yeah. And I think it's a good time to bring up the idea that, um, what is the difference between someone who can be super resilient and someone who isn't as resilient. And that is people, you know, one safe, stable, caring relationship. And it sounds like you are providing that for your own people, but also just to back up, you had some of those people in your life, right? What, what Ms. Gardner, is that what you said? Mrs. Gardner?

Roscoe: Yeah. So Ms. Gardner was my English teacher. She and, and who really, who did, who did a lot of validating, like she really like, um, I mean, it was, it was sitting around my art, which ended up becoming a big part of my identity. Um, but yeah, I mean, having her as a support system was huge, was huge for me. Um, and then Ms. Knight, Ms. LaToya Knight, uh, who's my counselor, um, uh, school counselor. So I mean, she was really just there to help me like make sure my, my grade point average wasn't, you know, it's, failing, but she was, but she was, but she was a, uh, you know, she was a nurse. She was a licensed counselor. She, she, she was equipped to deal with, um, some of these things as well. And, um, she gave me some of the verbiage that I, um, that helped me understand what I was experiencing. So I was very fortunate. I was lucky, um, to have had, um, to have had two instructors, essentially, who, who were aware enough to know what I was experiencing and, and knew enough to be a, a good support system for me. And to be too, like black women who were like, I'm probably in their late, I mean, like early late 20s, early 30s, they were both fairly young, um, educators, um, who, who were, you know, had the wherewithal, so like be like, hey, this kid needs help or this kid needs, you know, somebody to, you know, support him. 

Serena: Yeah. Yeah. That's awesome. So, so we are definitely going to recommend your books to everybody who's listening and will have a link to them, um, on, on our page, uh, with your episode and in the show notes. Um, I have not had the privilege of hearing you perform in person, but I've watched a whole bunch of videos and, uh, it's amazing. So we are hoping that you will share at least one of your poems with us today. 

Tina: So I, I was truly impressed by the, um, what, okay, I was totally impressed by the entire performance and, uh, you are quite an entertainer. I would say you're way more than a poet. You are an entertainer. And, um, I loved the piece called Lesson Plan for Conquering Depression. Would you indulge us and do that one? 

Roscoe: Yes, I would love to. 

Lesson Plan on Conquering Depression,

stare at the mirror, naked, point out all the best, then all the worse physical or not, realize the mind and the body are similar in the sense they are both made of clay. So be a potter's hands, cry, but do not weep in vain, hide everything sharp, knives, scissors, regrets, mistakes, and build, build castles from saltwater and sand, packed tight, depression comes in waves, construct a strong foundation in knowing this too shall pass and you breathe.

You live even through the death, you lie, lie to the lies, make them believe there'll be real boys some day. Tell them every time their nose grows, they are one inch closer to cutting the strings and you repeat, I am not depressed. I am not depressed. 

Depression is a death and I am alive,

I am alive, I live, you love, you be honest, you be honest to love, you love, honestly you let your honest loves, love you, you stare, stare at the sky when you walk. It will be grimace and gas on first attempt, self-esteem has been a pinched nerve is patience the heels and you breathe.

You create, instead of wishing for better days, because wishing is for stars and children, wishing doesn't go anywhere, wishing withers and wilts, wishing has no blossom, wishing is a verb, but wishing is not an action. You write until your hands can only grip pencils and pins and loved ones, write I am more than vicodin and Hennessy. I am more than nameless orgasms. I am more than the notches carved into my wrist and thighs, more than my last kiss to a puckering barrel

you read. Read the suicide notes that you buried like old love letters. Read them with a mouthful of puns. Read them ridiculous until you can't take this blue funk seriously. 

Anymore you breathe, you stare, you cry, you build, you breathe, you live, you love, you stare, you breathe, you create, you write, you read, you breathe, and you repeat, and you repeat, and you repeat,

and you repeat, and you repeat, and you repeat. 

Tina: All right, I'm silently applauding. Awesome. And what you all aren't seeing is the, I guess, dynamic with which this is delivered, picture Roscoe with his backwards hat that is all adorned with all kinds of amazing messages. And the kind of energy you have on stage is amazing. It's totally amazing. 

Roscoe: Well thank you.

Tina: Anyway, yeah. So let's talk just a little bit more about the kind of subject. So this is about depression. You do have more, you have lots of poems about lots of different things. It's about life, really. It's about life. And trauma and resilience and the human experience. So tell us a little, just tell us a little bit more about maybe something that speaks to you super powerfully in one of your pieces or all of your pieces. Like, how is it healing for you?

Roscoe: So I've worked a lot of resilience into my work. And I think that that's really been important to me, especially over the last few years. I think that when I go back and I look at my work from my teenage years and as a young adult, it was filled with a lot of pain. And the poems kind of stayed there in that dark space. And I've made a more concerted effort to find not necessarily a bright side, but just like kind of this moment where you know, you can do it. You can push through, you can make it to tomorrow. Even if that means tackling this thing all over again. 

And so there's a lot of that that works its way into the art that I'm creating and the art that I've created. And I think that's really important for my personal journey, because then the poems almost kind of work like affirmations, right? They're these things that like that I return to that reminds me that I still I'm still here. I still deserve to be here. I still have a lot of work to do. And that's okay. And so you know, doing these doing these poems now performing them, they're definitely for an audience, but they're also a constant reminder for me to keep going. And that's having that included in my work has been has been what has been life-saving and life-changing for me. And I hope for other people as well. 

Tina: That's awesome. So let's do one more. If we can, can we do one more? 

Roscoe: I would like to I would love to. And actually, I know we didn't talk about this earlier, but I have to I have this piece that is talks very candidly about me and my daughter's relationship. Because she is also someone who is she's also bipolar. She's her daddy's girl. She's also bipolar and she's she also suffers from depression. And so we have a lot of honest conversations about what that looks like. And you know, but she's, you know, she's she's pushing through and she's we have like all the support systems that we can to make sure that she's, you know, successful. But this poem is a product of really a couple of moments that we've had and since she's got a teenager. But kind of takes us back to like the first time we really had to deal with her depression and how that manifested. 

Tina: Let's do it. 

Roscoe: So this poem is called First. 

As a parent, you prepare for the first first step, the first day of school, the first loves, but never the first time your kid hates life, never the first time they want to take their own. 

So first she was cracking jokes. She had a desert smile, dry humor to evaporate the tears, but later on this chalkboard that we use for notes and affirmations, she scribbled life is rough and sometimes I hate it. 

It was the first time I caught her crying in her room, confessing to a blade that she hated herself, but didn't really know why she wanted to die. And I saw myself in my daughter, the sarcasm that could cut steel, watching her comedian, her depression away.

This was the first moment I saw the worst of me in her. I was the, I was her age, the first time I thought of suicide. The first time I attempted and no one tells you about these firsts, the first time you feel like a failure as a parent, the first time you don't know what to say.

So first I wanted to show her the burns on my chest when I tried to make ashes of my self-esteem. When I thought cuts could turn a forearm into a map to freedom. When I was nearly goaded by the voice of death or whatever speaks to you in the lonely moments to do a trust fall from a bridge and let an 18 wheeler catch me. But, but I feared that my tales would give her ideas. 

So the first thing I wanted to do was hold her, drape her in that cape that every parent wears, but she didn't want to be held in this tattered hand me down. So we sat in silence, a generation of depression between us. First, 13 year old me, now 13 year old her. 

And the first thing I said was, look, it feels like damned if you leave and hell if you stay. Sometimes the pain makes you appreciate the strength you have to push it away. 

Look, I fell in love and tomorrow when I chose today life gives you another day to be a winner and suicide is the last day you get to be a quitter. I've learned so much from the attempts that withered before I did.

My firstborn leaned in and called me a crybaby. We laughed and we talked about surviving.

She says I turn everything into a poem and she ain't lying. It is because I still remember the first poems that kept me breathing. I wrote them about her.

And that's that poem. 

Tina: Oh my gosh, woah. I'm glad we don't have the cameras. Wow. Yeah. Is that in one of your books? 

Roscoe: That is a fairly new poem and I am working on a new collection. I don't have a published date yet, but we're going to start shopping the book around soon. 

Serena: Okay. 

Tina: Wow. Let's take a moment and gather ourselves. There it is. 

Serena: Okay. So just a couple more questions for you. So something we like to ask all of our guests about self-care is how we refer to it, but I think you know you could think about a lot of different ways that mental health, just like physical health needs that nurturing and care on our part in order to stay healthy. So what do you have? What do you keep in your toolbox? We know writing, right, and performing. What other things help you stay well? 

Roscoe: What are the things help me stay well? I've taken a lot of comedy. I'm a stand-up comedy nerd. So I watch a lot of like, I binge watch a lot of stand-up specials on Netflix. I have dipped my toe in stand-up comedy. A handful of times, I performed at the Queen City Comedy Festival this past year, and then I have a special on Amazon Prime and Tubi and a few other platforms. Collage comedy where I'm talking really, you know, candidly about mental health and resilience and survival and trauma and addiction and all that stuff, and it's a mixture of spoken word, poetry, and stand-up comedy. So it's funny, you're going to laugh, you're going to cry, and it's a very layered experience. So, you know, I'm going to encourage everyone to check that out.

Spending time with my kids brings me a lot of joy. I really, really love fatherhood. So it's, you know, my teenager is a teenager. So we don't kick it as much as when she was like, you know, in middle school or in elementary school, but we, but she has the same kind of humor, and so we laugh and joke all the time. My son is the six-year-old. He's the one who's kind of tucked up under me all the time. He wants to do all the things with me. I'm the best friend. I'm the teacher. I'm the disciplinarian. I'm the, you know, you know, I'm all the things. And so he's full of joy. He's so innocent and full of wonder and curiosity. He's my little science guy. So we do a bunch of science experiments around the house, and we watch TV and play video games, and just watching them, watching their, their experience in this, this life that we have, right, is, is really, really enjoyable for me. Just kind of seeing the human experience as an observer and, and watching my kids grow up is, is, is something that in general just keeps me wanting to, to do it again and do it again the next day and the next day, and the next day, just watching them experience life. And knowing that they, they, you know, even though my teenager is a, is a bratty little teenager sometimes, but she, when she, when, when, push comes to shove, if she ever needs anything, if she's going through something and she's down, if whatever, the first person she comes to run to is me. And so, you know, it's, it's always a reminder that I'm very necessary. And I think everyone needs that in some way, even if it isn't, you know, through parenting or whatever, like everyone wants to feel needed, everyone wants to feel necessary. And so I found these moments where I feel necessary. 

Tina: And I can imagine looking into that sweet little angel baby's face. It just gives you renewal. Like, yeah, in fact, you did a funny post the other day where you said you were creeping on your baby, but seriously, those pictures, ah, that is so renewing. 

Roscoe: Yeah, so I got, you know, we have the brand new brand new baby at home. She's just two months right now. And so, you know, in there, they're the most beautiful when they're asleep. They're not, they're not busting and crying and all that stuff. And so, I was like, oh, you're so adorable right now. 

Tina: Oh, funny. 

Serena: So, so tell our guests where they can find you and connect with you to learn more. 

Roscoe: Okay, so yeah, so all social media, it's, it's Roscoe Burnhams, which is a little complicated. So, R-O-S-C-O-E-B-U-R-N-E-M-S. Or, or at the writers' den, R-V-A, that's the collective that I run. And so we do a lot of like poetry things and poetry things, comedian things, things that just would involve like writing and performance. And we do a lot of cool things throughout the city. They can find me all the, like all the social media stuff. And then, of course, they can watch Traumedy or wherever, you know, whatever streaming platforms they have. And then, they can, they can find the books online. I'm, I'm pretty easy to find. There's not a lot of Roscoe Burnems is going around the internet. So, you know, whether it's YouTube and, you know, videos checking out videos on there or finding me on IG, that, you know, I'm pretty easy, I'm pretty easy to access. And I'm pretty easy to talk to as well. Like, a lot of times, you know, I get new writers who hit me up or people who are having their own, their own little, you know, difficult journey with mental health. And sometimes it's just cool to just kind of, kind of vent a little bit. And so, you know, I'm pretty, I'm a pretty easy guy to talk to. And, you know, I like being helpful wherever I can or at least connecting people with other resources so that they can find ways to help themselves. 

Tina: I would agree, You are easy to talk to. And we are so grateful that you joined us today and, you know, shared your incredible talents, which we love. And I want you to know, having experienced what Serena and I have experienced with our own kids, there are dark days, right? And what I want you to know is that you are a gift, you are a gift to Richmond and you're gift to all the people that touch you and you're a great dad. And you're awesome. And so, I appreciate you. 

Roscoe: Oh, thanks, y'all. I really appreciate y'all. And I appreciate this opportunity to talk about this stuff. This is really necessary. 

Serena: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks, Roscoe. And so podcast friends, we are as always grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leave us a review, subscribe, and share the episode with others. You will find more content on our website, You can connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also call us and leave us a voice message. You'll find that number in our notes. Share a bit of your story. Tell us what you think of the episode or just call to say hi. 

Tina: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people. 

Serena: Thanks so much for listening. 

Tina: Bye.