Local artist expresses inner struggle through poetry

By Becca MorelloContributor – rmorello@unca.edu

Photo by Brian Vu - Staff Photographer Award winning spoken-word poet and UNCA alumnus Griffin Payne speaks at TEDxUNCAsheville about the importance of stories.
Photo by Brian Vu – Staff Photographer
Award winning spoken-word poet and UNCA alumnus Griffin Payne speaks at TEDxUNCAsheville about the importance of stories.

The audience sits in total stillness, collectively holding their breath as Griffin Payne, award-winning spoken-word performer, sheds the skin he shows society to show the captivated audience his true self.

Words on a piece of paper come to life as Payne breathes life and energy into them, occasionally singing a line or bouncing and dancing with the cadence of the poem, completely internalizing the poem, totally free of any inhibitions. Payne does more than give a performance – he becomes the performance, melding himself with the words to share this tale and experience with audiences. He makes himself and the piece larger than life.

Waiting to meet on a cold January night in Edna’s of Asheville is the same man, but with a different demeanor. He sits quietly, still surrounded by the same buzz of energy and warmth that exists in his performances but now more contained.

“I know that there is something magical that happens for me when I’m on stage. It’s almost spiritual where I feel like I’m connecting to something much greater than myself, and that’s because I am, in being up there on the stage I am connecting to whoever is present in that audience and feeling like it is my responsibility to share something,” Payne said.

Growing up in Arizona in a household that constantly encouraged writing, Payne said he found his poetic voice at a young age, beginning to write poetry around the age of 12 and ultimately started performing at 19.

“I come from a family of writers. My sister is also a writer and my mother wrote poetry into her mid-40s, so that was what was always present and what came naturally. That’s how I got through adolescence, all those journals that no one will ever see,” Payne says, chuckling. “It brought me immense joy and relief.”

Part of this success means accessing a very vulnerable and sensitive part of himself, as much of the power of his pieces stems from his own personal struggles. Payne’s presence conveys a tremendous air of grace and confidence. He exudes such charisma and charm it’s impossible to imagine anything, much less mental illness, proves to be an obstacle for this 26-year-old.

“Onstage I talk to the audience about how poetry saves lives. That first became very real to me when I was 19 and going through my first episode of depression and in the subsequent episodes the constant has been that when there’s nothing left, poetry, and at least trying to tell the story of what’s happening has been my tether, keeping me feeling connected to something,” Payne said.

No one would expect someone as articulate and poised as Payne to battle with bipolar disorder and depression. A discovery of this magnitude often surprises and shocks those around him.

“I admire his tenacity. I really do. I admire the way that he can mask it. Certain people when they’re going through stuff, you can read it on them. You can’t read it on him,” said Suzie Morris, friend of Payne’s and administrative assistant in the drama department at UNC Asheville.

Payne continues to work with his illness, vocalizing much of his challenge through his poetry, using writing and performing as a cathartic release. Payne’s work gains recognition internationally through publications in the Radical Faery Digest magazine, Paris Lit Up literary review and in 2011, the Radical Faeries named Payne their poet Laureate. Payne also completed his first book of poetry, which is slated to release soon by Lethe Press.

“I think the biggest reason performing works for me is that I am very introverted, and part of me understood that if I was on the stage, I was still somewhat protected and alone. It kind of cut through the social niceties, cut through all of that navigating which can be hard to do within just a normal social interaction. To actually be in a space dedicated to telling the truth than to sharing beauty than to sharing whatever piece of the human spirit,” Payne said.

In the fall of 2012, Payne decided to return to UNCA to explore drama courses applicable to a drama therapy graduate program. He met with Lise Kloeppel, assistant professor of drama at UNCA, who invited him to assistant direct The Giver, one of the department’s fall productions.

“Griffin is highly motivated, passionate and hard-working. He is a good listener and gets a long with a variety of people. He is wise beyond his years and a true student of life,” Kloeppel said. “I believed the best way for him to learn about theater was by doing it. Serving as the assistant director would allow him to get a broad overview of the various aspects involved in theatrical production.”

Incorporating his experiences with UNCA’s drama department, Payne started the Ariadne Theater Project in the summer of 2013 to replicate the success performing has in his life. With the support of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Western North Carolina, Payne’s constructed the project to consist of a series of eight workshops, during which participants shared their stories and experiences with mental illness. The workshop emphasized honesty and openness, encouraging them to express their struggles instead of covering them up.

“He has this aura about him that I was attracted to about him right from the beginning. Not only is he strikingly gorgeous, but there’s this warmth and sense that he’s so open to things and when I found out he was working with NAMI over the summer on that project, I thought it was an amazing project and he has the ability to make people open up, which was really interesting to me because I don’t have that ability,” Morris said.

Payne began working with Asheville Writers in the School, a nonprofit organization placing writers in Asheville schools to work with kids, year and a half ago, teaching them valuable writing skills and techniques for expression. Aiming to not only make students stronger writers, but also making them more confident individuals who are capable of expressing themselves through writing.

“I have seen him struggle with his mental health and his poetry. His poetry is poignant, honest and breathtaking. An effortless spectacle of wisdom and struggle. And he does so much to understand and advocate for his mental health problems. I honestly don’t think he would be the artist he is without these struggles, as hard as they are. I see him grow and evolve each time I see him,” said Olivia Medoff, 21, close friend of Payne’s.

As someone who finds comfort and release challenging himself with performing and sharing his darker moments in life, Payne aims to establish that same practice for others. Especially in today’s world, which strays away from uncomfortable topics such as mental illness, a subject Payne very passionately describes. Payne strives to break the stigma society has surrounding mental illness by encouraging those in his workshops to vocalize their challenges, emphasizing the importance of building a sense of community.

“My biggest goal when I’m teaching is that my students wake up to expression within their own minds, that despite all the cultural norms that the artist be separate and on a pedestal, that this gift that is in each of us in different ways is a birthright and cannot be taken from us at any point. That is one of the most real and lasting things they can ever find. Their story is valuable and worthwhile and they as humans are valuable and worthwhile and worth telling the story and trying to tell it right,” Payne said.

Payne spoke and performed at UNCA’s TEDx event on Feb. 15, describing the importance of telling one’s story and society’s need to define a community open to this expression by naming its values, reaffirming those values and actualizing them.

“It’s about practice and ritual – of being together. We will have to be much more intentional about creating those spaces because communities today are fractured. Even when people are outside their homes, they are most likely in locations where everyone looks and sounds like him or her. I just believe so fully in bringing diverse people together. Whether it be age, class, race, sexual orientation – we are creatures who depend and thrive upon stories, and once we have circles where all of us are totally together, that’s the breadth of humanity that we are, and it becomes harder to dehumanize someone,” Payne said.

Despite his progress, Payne still experiences flare-ups from his depression and five months ago checked back in the psych ward for treatment, utilizing medical techniques with writing and storytelling for mental stability.

“He has known struggle and is not afraid to be vulnerable. Griffin is a true artist and the best friend and advocate for anyone or any community could ever have,” Medoff said. “Griffin is one of the most self-aware, empathetic, intelligent, artistic and beautiful individuals I know and I am always inspired by him.”

Payne plans to continue his advocacy for mental health awareness by writing, performing and hosting workshops around the country. Although Asheville remains a home to Payne, he plans to move to Seattle later this year, a place he said offers the perfect environment to enrich himself mentally and artistically. Payne, eager to see what the next phase of his life entails, knows when life proves challenging, poetry provides support, just as it did in his childhood.

“Whenever there is unrest within my interior world, I go first to the page, to try and learn what is beneath that, what is going on. Just attempt to unravel my own story. Having that refuge and tool has been incredibly important over the years and continues to be.”

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