My Experience with Sound Your Truth 2023 | Ripley Butterfield

I first became aware of Sound Your Truth through my Design: Form class taught by Emilie Houssart. For one of our projects, students were given the option to collaborate on a biodegradable, interactive sculpture that would somehow contribute to the event. I was very excited about that assignment, and the idea of making public art was of particular interest. There was also the event itself, which was new to me, and seemed distinct from the polite campus gatherings I was used to seeing.

As I learned more about Sound Your Truth, I began to consider participating as a speaker. This was abnormal for me—typically, the fear of embarrassment restrains me from any kind of public expression. But I could see that this event offered a uniquely open, malleable environment. It seemed to be a place where earnest sharing and compassionate listening could meet, and exchange something. And it was going to happen right here! I appreciated that the organizers sought to empower marginalized voices, and asked myself what good it would do to remain silent in my Black lesbian margins. Eventually, I signed up to have some time on the microphone, not knowing exactly what I would say.

In the week leading up to Sound Your Truth, I threw my whole heart into developing my contributions to the event. Collaborating on the sculpture with my Design: Form peers took on a very physical “making” process, from foraging grapevines to twisting them, to collecting grape juice and vine tendrils, to constructing a standing form. This was grounding and rewarding work, and I couldn’t wait to see how people would connect with it.

At the same time, I was thinking hard about what to say with my few minutes on the mic. I knew I needed to share my complicated grief about losing my partner to her renewed religious homophobia. This had happened recently, and shaken me to the core, yet I had been largely silent about it because the topic seemed so unfit for the academic setting. Why? The boundary between personal and professional is muddy on a campus; I work, study, and live in this place. Theoretical discussions—of love, oppression, identity— inside our classrooms are constantly coming into contact with the lived realities of myself and others outside. How painful it is to ignore this, feigning a studious distance. You don’t want to bother anyone with this troubling unacademic thing, your self, yet one cannot separate the student from the mind, or the intellect from the emotion. In hindsight, I was desperate for the chance to speak.

I had one poem in mind to read. Then I became motivated to work on a new one that I had only roughly started writing. The event became a helpful sort of deadline for me, and I used it to coax more emotional truths into something communicable. I spent a lot of time wondering why this outlet seemed so vital. What was I looking to do? I decided against reading a pre-written preface to the poems I had drafted. Instead, I made sparse notes on what I wanted to talk about. I hoped that whoever cared to listen would fill the nervous gaps in my speech with their empathy.

On the day of Sound Your Truth, I spent the afternoon darting back and forth with various components of the sculpture and helping our group position it in the quad. Everything coalesced as the rolling thunder of drums filled the air, and a great swathe of people gathered. I sat with my classmates proudly. Friendly students and faculty were eyeing our piece, a freeform woven home, and smiling at its absurd, cozy presence. Visitors to our table carefully scrawled messages in slow-drying grape juice, and used vine tendrils as hooks to attach them to the structure. Nested Truths lived comfortably amid the movement, as the evening continued.

Waves of commotion and quiet characterized the event for me. The hum of voices dropped low each time a new person took the stage, and from my seat I clearly heard proclamations, poetry, rap performances and readings resound. One of my favorite parts of Sound Your Truth was the rhythm and wordplay that so many writers exercised in their work. Rhyme and alliteration came out in unexpected ways, whether subtle or blunt-edged, and I was transfixed by it. For a while, I experienced a profound contentment sitting in a sea of people I knew and didn’t know, just listening.

At one point in the evening, I became acutely nervous about getting up to share. Someone was delivering a forceful religious speech at the microphone. As they spoke about human sin and the need for repentance, I felt as though the crushing, inevitable blow of homophobia was stalking me from some dark corner. Luckily, my visible fear was met by the encouragement of my classmates, who asserted that my “truth” still needed to be told. I was so grateful for that moment of connection. I hadn’t told anyone about my plans to read until then, but my shy admission was met with such kindness.

Eventually it happened, my name was called, and so I went up to speak. The specifics of what I said have disappeared from my mind. I remember the lights seemed to match the warm energy within me, and I remember the sensation of flow, like a floodgate opening and something continuous and sure emerging. I allowed my imprecise words to configure themselves into an expression of mourning and love, or I tried to. As I talked, it was so obvious to me that I needed this release, and this chance to be known—as a writer, as a lover, as a dyke. I read excerpts from a mini-epic poem in blank verse, “Lesbian Genesis,” which had been a gift to my ex-girlfriend on our final anniversary. Some parts of that piece were so well-worn and familiar to me that I was able to recite them from memory. Then I read the poem I had only just finished, “Where You Break I Make.” I am not a very skilled poet, but reading that second piece aloud was the closest I have ever come to self-actualization through writing.

I thanked everyone for listening, then ran off in a daze. The responses and encounters that followed, and continue to occur even now, have been unbelievable. A librarian who is very dear to me had been watching, and she gave me a comforting embrace as soon as I left the stage. As I reached the back of the crowd, someone approached me to offer a hug and talked to me for a while about the pain that her Christian upbringing had caused. A group of former classmates came over to express their care for me, and said I read beautifully; then people I knew distantly showed up, followed by total strangers, a beloved educator, and others. I am still trying to understand why anybody was willing to open themselves up in this way, to hold a part of my sadness. The generosity is almost blinding to think of. In the days since Sound Your Truth, people have told me that they cried at my poems, or that they are still thinking of my words. Like a structure that relies on the tension of many fragile parts to hold strong, I have been reinforced by these little statements of love.

For me, Sound Your Truth felt like a unique outlet within what can be a very impersonal—and even anti-personal— academic environment. It helped me transcend a moment of utter loneliness through unexpected connection. The space supported people’s honesty, vulnerability, and a huge range of emotions without shutting them down under a guise of respectability or intellectualism. I hope that a similar atmosphere can be fostered throughout the physical and social realm of SUNY New Paltz. I hope that we can make this place more human.

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