“The world is waiting for you to set it on fire. Trust in yourself and burn.” — ‘For Teenage Girls’ by Clementine von Radics
When I asked Clementine von Radics, a 25-year-old poet from Portland, Oregon, what impact she wants to have with her art in general, there was a small pause.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know how much I can focus on questions like that. I think I can focus on trying to be a good writer…and trying to explore being a good and decent person, and woman, and queer woman.”
Her 2015 poem ‘For Teenage Girls’ went viral on YouTube with the words, “you don’t have to grow up to find greatness. You are so much stronger than the world ever believed you could be.”
As a teenage girl not a stranger to self-doubt, I let these words and the strength of generations of Malalas, Anne Franks, and Joan of Arcs wash over me every time I start something new, and I had to speak to this magical person. Here’s what Clementine von Radics had to say on bravery, writing and teenage girls.
VOX: I want to talk about a few of your poems. In “Patron Saint for Manic Depressives,” you ended by saying, “I will not apologize for what allows me to see the sky. Not tonight. Not ever again.” How did you get to this point of not apologizing for your mental illness?
von Radics: Writing has helped with that a lot. Often, I will feel very ashamed of something — we all do, I think, whatever other-izes us — but in writing about it and naming that thing and seeing that other people experience it as well, that brings recognition that moves a lot of the shame. I’m never going to have a different life. I’m never going to have a different brain. I’m always going to be this person and so the best I can do is to be kind and to be hardworking and to live honestly instead of trying to pretend I’ve had an experience that I don’t. That’s not going to serve me or anyone around me.
VOX: You tell your story with so much honesty. I think that’s really brave. For people who are writing and trying to open up about their stories, what would you say to them?
von Radics: There’s this author [Rachel Cusk]. She has this quote: “My honesty isn’t brave because it isn’t about me. It’s just that I’m all that I’ve got.” That’s the advice that I tend to have for other writers: to focus on living, to focus on having experiences and perspective and things to write about, to surround yourself with writers through an academic setting, whether that’s through slam, whether that’s through an online community. Surround yourself with peers who are interested in pushing boundaries and making themselves better and doing stronger and more innovative work all the time, and to be authentically themselves. People are bored of themselves often and don’t think that they’re very interesting to write about. But no one has the same perspective as everyone else. If someone is a new author, they should focus on what makes them unique rather than striving to be something that already exists.
VOX: Have you ever struggled with trying to emulate someone else? How did you find that authenticity? Or did you start out being authentic?
von Radics: Oh, no. I absolutely struggled to find my own voice and I still struggle with it. I think every writer is [struggling]. I would be very bored of myself if I was already perfect. What keeps it interesting, what keeps you in love with writing, is the part of it that you struggle with. At least, for me. For me, it feels like a puzzle that I’m constantly trying to solve. If I’m working on a project, it tells me to write about something that scares me or challenges me.
“I’m never going to have a different brain. I’m always going to be this person, and so the best I can do is to be kind and to be hardworking and to live honestly.”
VOX: When you’re writing a piece, how do you know that it’s ready?
von Radics: My process is that I’ll think about something and then make notes over the course of a couple weeks and either speak it out loud or write it down and then I’ll have a solid draft. I usually read it, once, and have an audience to react to it, then I’ll go back and make edits. It generally hones itself into something that exists and it just starts feeling like this is the best possible version that I can create right now. That’s when I tend to let it go and start focusing on something else. I don’t know if a poem ever feels “perfect” or “finished” to me, but there’s a point where I feel like it is beyond my capacity to improve it, and that’s when I move on.
VOX: Was there ever a time that you doubted your work?
von Radics: I doubt my work all the time, but I think of it in terms of the best thing that I can bring to the table, and what I tell myself when I doubt my work is that I’m not in control of how intelligent I was born. I’m not in control of my inspiration. I’m not in control of whether or not I’m a genius or truly gifted. What I am in control of is my work ethic. So the times when I feel like I doubt myself, I know that my work ethic is not something that can be taken away from me. If I continue to focus and show up and try, that’s something I can be very proud of no matter what. When I doubt myself, I have to remind myself that most of my work is showing up and doing my best, and that is something I’m totally capable of.
VOX: I want to go back to a specific poem, “For Teenage Girls.” It was really beautiful. What inspired it?
von Radics: It started as a joke with a friend of mine, actually. She asked, what advice would you give to teenage girls, and I was like, what advice would you give to any teenage girl or what advice would you give to Anne Frank? What advice would you give to Joan of Arc? What advice would you give to any of these people? Then it became this really cool idea of what if you could use this device telling teenage girls how important and powerful they were by saying at this age, people were doing this. At 13, Anne Frank was writing this book that millions of people would read. Malala won the Nobel Prize for what happened to her at 15. Cleopatra became queen when she was 18. That became a really interesting idea, and I was a very young woman at the time, 22, and I had younger sisters, and it just felt like a very important message to me to say that you don’t need to be embarrassed and you don’t need to doubt yourself. There are people who will doubt you, and you are stronger than those people.
VOX: What were you like as a teenager?
von Radics: What was I like as a teenager? [laughs] I was scared and lonely. Nerdy. I really, really loved art. And I was very, very excited to be a grown-up. I had a couple of friends that I still really, really love that I knew as a teenager. Definitely, the best years of my life have been since I was a teenager.
VOX: What impact do you want to have with your art in general?
von Radics: I don’t know. I don’t know how much I can focus on questions like that. I think I can focus on trying to be a good writer and trying to be a good person — which informs your writing — and trying to explore being a good and decent person, and woman, and queer woman. There’s times that you fail at that and don’t know what that looks like, and I mostly hope to accomplish telling my own story. Whatever that ends up being.
“I’m not in control of how intelligent I was born. I’m not in control of my inspiration. I’m not in control of whether or not I’m a genius or truly gifted. What I am in control of is my work ethic.”
VOX: Where do you get ideas for your poems? Is it things that happen in your life, or in the world?
von Radics: I don’t tend to write about things that don’t touch me personally. I tend to be inspired by either cool concepts or sometimes cool historical figures I’ll read about, but I tend to write exclusively about my own experience. Poetry is best if you don’t try to write about something broad and complex.
VOX: You started writing at 19, and you talked a little about how poetry has impacted your life. How else has writing impacted you?
von Radics: It’s given me a strong community. It’s given me a sense of passion and self-worth. There are things that I feel like would have haunted me for a lot longer, but I’m lucky enough to have this job where I can write about things and talk about things and put them out into the world and be able to let them go instead of carrying them around inside.
VOX: Could you tell me about your tattoos?
von Radics: (laughs) Sure. I’ve got a lot of them. I have this dove on a brand of Gibson guitar that reminds me of the Gibson guitar my dad had growing up, so I’ve got this dove tattoo. I have a knife tattoo, which is a friendship tattoo with my best friend. My third favorite is “yes, I will, yes.” It’s the last line of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ which is my mother’s favorite book.
All my favorite tattoos are about people that I love.
“There are people who will doubt you, and you are stronger than those people.”
VOX: Is it ever hard to write about what’s going on in your life?
von Radics: I don’t know about other people, but when I write about an emotional experience, it’s never a very good poem. People’s diary entries aren’t very good poems. There’s just a lot of pain and anger. I want to wait until I have a little bit more perspective on whatever has happened and I can phrase it in a beautiful way, so I can have a sense of compassion to the other people in the story and make it more true rather than subjective. I try to wait until it’s more of a concise story and not just scrambling to write about the willy-nilly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The author of Dream Girl and Mouthful of Forevers, Clementine von Radics is coming out with a new chapbook, O Mistress Mine, in the first week of November on Where Are You Press, a publishing house she founded in 2013 to focus “on the voices of young women, people of color, and other marginalized voices.” Follow her work on Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr.