AFM: Since Aerie is one of the brands you’ve partnered with more recently, what specifically attracted you to working with them?
CW: Well, I was first introduced to what the brand was doing through my friend Yara, who’s worked on some projects with them. What we really just found was that so much of what they believe is important as a brand, aligned with what we believe is important. And, really, creating spaces for girls to explore and expand the idea of what has been so long sold to us as ‘beauty,’ or as being ‘perfect’ or ‘healthy.’ They’re really helping the next generation redefine all of these standards that don’t even work and aren’t accurate. I was so impressed by and so excited that someone was putting together campaigns with real women who didn’t have to be thin for a living in order to get the job. So, when they approached us, it was kind of just a dream partnership. What’s really exciting is that we’ll be able to travel around the U.S. also together to build spaces for girls to talk about body image and self-love and personal growth and friendship.
AFM: What is the process like for you of creating and editing mantras?
CW: Well, I’m definitely the ‘edit queen.’ You know what’s really important for me is that if it’s written in 10 words, and I can say it in six, I always try to get to that place. Even if it’s just visually or how the word reads, it’s so important for there to be space for the reader. I never write something with the intention of, ‘I want you to do this.’ I write with the intention of, ‘Take this and do whatever you need to do with it.’ It’s not about somebody doing what I want them to do with it. I have no desire to control how the work is translated into the world or into the lives of anyone. But, I do want them to know that there are words and spaces available for them, for their own healing and for their own growth. So, for me, for it to be as minimal as possible, allows for there to be enough space for that to be relatable to someone who may be going through a hard time in eighth grade or who may be going through a hard time in their eighties. And I think that when I’m the happiest about my work, is when I see that the same work is translated for different people and different parts of their lives.
AFM: Your work reminds me a lot of Maya Angelou’s. I think that both of you encompass the same level of sincerity. And while your words may read gently, they also speak a lot of volumes. So, are there any poets or artists whose work has served as a sort of template for your own?
CW: Even when I first wanted to try to be a poet for a living—I mean, that was not a job that existed. So, I had no idea how it could be possible. I didn’t know anyone of my generation that it was possible for because it really hadn’t existed yet. Rupi Kaur is a really good girlfriend of mine, and this was even before “Milk and Honey” was changing the literary world. And so now, I think that girls are able to look at poets, and to see and feel that it would be possible to have a career in literature, which is so amazing. But at that time, there was no one in our generation at all. So, if it weren’t for the Maya Angelous, the Alice Walkers, the James Baldwins and the Mary Olivers of the world, I mean—I definitely don’t think Shakespeare ever made me feel like I could do it for a living. So, if it wasn’t for those authors, I don’t know that I could have even began to see the dream. And a lot of those people too, when you’re a young writer and sort of trying to figure out your own voice, you find that you kind of start by imitating them. You eventually break open and have your own template and put that out into the world. The reason that it’s so important for me to tell my story and to put as much of my work out into the world as I can, is because I know that there’s a young writer somewhere who has a voice, and just doesn’t know how to use that voice yet. So, I know that they’re probably starting with my template. Which I then know that they will bust open and create something ten times better than I could ever create. And I just want to be able to make sure that they have a starting place. Because if it weren’t for the Mayas of the world, I wouldn’t have known my starting place and I couldn’t be where I am today.
AFM: My favorite poem from your book, “Heart Talk,” was the poem ‘tired.’ The end of the poem reads: “I was tired of looking at the world as one big mess, so I decided to start cleaning it up and when people ask me if I am exhausted, I tell them no. Because more than anything, what I got the most tired of, was being tired.” What words of encouragement would you offer to all of the people who may be feeling, as you say, ‘tired of being tired?’
CW: There’s another page is my book that says, ‘Not every ground is a battleground.’ In that, it says that the wise soldier recognized that not every ground is a battleground. Their scars do not let them forget that they’ve had to be a fighter, but their scars also do no let them forget that the human body cannot live its life every day in the trenches. It’s not possible to wake up with anger and outrage and fury every single day. You have to allow yourself to rest so that you can be in a place to properly problem solve. We really do need to create solutions from a heart space and we need a healthy emotional head space. So, I think to everyone who is fighting the good fight, it’s so important to give yourself space to come back to yourself and rest and replenish, so that when you are out in the world trying to help the world, you are doing it from a healed space. As the old saying goes, ‘Healed people heal people and hurt people, hurt people.’ We have to have love and peace within ourselves, so that we can do those loving acts for each other.
AFM: Love seems to be the core value of who you are. It’s present in writing, it’s present in your work as an activist. And it’s even more prevalent in the way that you interact with and care for others. So, Cleo, what does love mean to you?
CW: For me, love is really an action word. It is a thing in motion, it is not something we just feel, it is not something we just say, it is really something you do. It is something that requires you to show up. Whether it’s how Cornell West defines justice as, ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ It’s when we show up in public to change for a more loving way of being. It’s when we show up for a friend, whether it’s on their birthday or just for a casual dinner. Or whether we show up for a stranger just by saying ‘hello.’ That’s what love looks like to me.