For this special episode of Chroma and Friends I had the opportunity to do an email interview with spoken word poet and my pal, Chris Bernstorf. Chris has been touring and performing poetry since 2010; since 2015 I’ve gotten to know him through various tours and festivals and conversations that lasted until sunrise. Today, Chris gives us a detailed look at his new album It’s All Joy and reflects on his experiences as a traveling artist, an advocate for meaningful spirituality, and a plain ‘ol human. Give it a listen, then come back here and read what he has to say.
Fallon: Before we dive into your latest release, It’s All Joy, I wanted to highlight the “prologue” of sorts to your tour that you sent to your email list, an open letter called The Gazebo Matters. It brings the sort of attention to the value of creativity we here at Chroma really resonate with. In the letter, you lay out an argument for why people, regardless of their beliefs or circumstances, have a need for creativity, the conclusion being that it is a vessel for hope. Could you give an example of how art, either in its creation or appreciation, has impacted you and/or your community in such a way that it inspired this kind of hope?
Chris: Art has given me hope in so many ways. I think two examples that come to mind right now are from Levi the Poet and Kevin Schlereth. Levi has so many lines that stick with me and inspire me. “I’d rather have You than all of my answers,” from his album Correspondence gave words to so many different feelings and longings I had churning in my spirit, feelings I couldn’t express but I could sense burning inside. It came as a relief to me, allowing me to finally understand and handle everything I could feel inside of me and also allowing me to express those feelings to others. I have so often felt that, no matter what pain or confusion has come my way, no matter what difficult experience, somehow God is still there and still worth the suffering, and hearing that line from Levi allowed me to put that into words in a coherent, concise, clear way. That line has blessed me so much. Other lines from Levi, like “Three-in-One be the breathe in my lungs,” have worked their way into my prayer life and become the actual words that I speak to God because they seem to best express what my heart longs for. The first time I heard “Tables” from the band Kevin Schlereth, I was sitting on the floor in my friends’ kitchen. As Kevin and Jay were singing, I was nodding along, enjoying the new song as just a new piece of art my friends had made. When the chorus hit though, a simple refrain of “Jesus, it’s hard,” I wept. I was at a point in my life of working through a deep conflict with one of my best friends, a conflict that also seemed to threaten the beginning of my relationship with my now wife, and a massive implosion within my friend group in which many of the most important people in my life were tearing each other apart over a massively difficult issue. All of this combined with the normal growth and struggles with life and faith that I, like everyone, experience and work through. It created this huge, heavy weight in my heart, and hearing “Tables” acknowledge the hardship and give me words to express it (and also words to cry out to God from it) was such a relief and a catharsis. It felt like God saw me in my pain and reached out to acknowledge me, to commiserate, to hold me in it, and to give me and remind me of His hope and promises. I was so powerfully moved, and that song has continued to mean so much to me and I think so much to all of my friends who struggled in the situations we shared and also in their own ways. To be seen in the pain, to have someone agree with you that it’s hard down here (something the Church doesn’t always do a good job of), to have someone offer you a cry for and promise of hope that is visceral and real and knows this world’s pain in a real way, to have someone do all of that in a non-bullshit way that points to God’s very words, that isn’t just making up some nice platitude, means so, so much. I am so thankful for that song (and the whole Catechism record it comes from).
F: Let's start off talking about It's All Joy with a doozy of a question, one I’ve been wrestling with since first listening to your album. The most popular generalizations that surround poets often include characterizing them as elusive, codifying their every intention, brooding in quiet rage, pining for resolution they might never attain— but take a cursory glance at the music video for “Swing” and those generalizations are quickly challenged. Deeper still, the way that you operate as an artist places you in close proximity with fellow creatives and fans; it’s hard not to get to know you a little bit if someone follows your work. With the extremely personal nature of It’s All Joy in mind, how do you approach the communication of your identity through your poetry? Are there certain characteristics or ideas you try to project over others? Do you find yourself struggling with any sort of pressures to present yourself a certain way?
C: I don’t think poetry always gives me an issue with how I present myself but rather just living as a person. I’ve struggled a ton with insecurity over the course of my life, with wanting to be accepted and found to be “good enough” in whatever relationship or circumstance I find myself. Those struggles obviously work very directly against any sort of vulnerability, and vulnerability is one of the most crucial aspects of making art and of just living the way we were created (i.e. in healthy, joyful, growing relationship with God, ourselves, and each other). Learning to be vulnerable, learning to express everything I feel in Godly, healthy ways, has been a huge struggle and growth process over the course of my life. We joke often of the death of “posi-Chris” back in 2015. In the fall of that year, I did a giant tour with my friends in Kept On Hold (and a few others who hopped on at different points). Andrew from Kept On Hold and I were together for 120 days straight. He is one of my best friends, and that experience brought us even closer. Through it, he started to really work with me on expressing my emotions. Before then, I thought that feeling angry or bothered or upset or sad or hurt were “bad” and therefore sins. Andrew helped me learned to express everything I thought, even the hard stuff, and it really changed my whole entire life. Learning to be honest with God brought me so much closer to Him, brought me so much closer to friends and family, and I think just made me all around a better person, artist, and performer. I’ve also really learned a lot from my friend Kevin Schlereth about how faith works and that we as Christians shouldn’t be trying to “sell” anything. Faith isn’t a matter of convincing someone, of proving to God that you really believe or of proving that to others. The Bible says that God’s strength is made complete in our weakness and that we should rejoice in weakness and suffering and trial. I’ve learned so much the last few years about learning to just be exactly who I am, warts and all, as the phrase goes, and letting God be Himself in that. Radical honesty has led me to radical freedom and healing and love. I heard a Matt Chandler sermon back in 2015 where he said something akin to, “Hey, if you don’t believe God is good, that’s fine, but you need to tell Him, so He can heal you.” I remember sitting on my bed at 25 years old, long into this whole sharing Jesus through art thing, and telling God that I just didn’t believe He was good or had my best interests in mind. I told Him I knew that I should, but I just didn’t. As soon as I admitted that, I felt something inside my heart break and the Spirit just rush in, and I’ve known since (albeit, with your expected moments of doubt and uncertainty) in a very real way that God is good and does have my best interest in mind. But I didn’t find any healing until I told the truth about where I was at. I keep thinking about how the crippled guy on the mat doesn’t say to Jesus “What mat? I’m not paralyzed” when Jesus says pick up your mat and walk. He knows he’s crippled, and he knows he needs healing. This has transferred over a ton into my art because I’m just trying to tell the truth as best as I can and let God have the pieces fall where they may. The band Eight Days from December described themselves as an act of vulnerability in the hopes that others could be vulnerable with them. Reading that really changed me, and I think it puts into words what I’m working for in my art—the belief that the best art comes from vulnerability and honesty and, through offering that, the immense power of art as commiseration and vision-giver with can be extended to everyone who interacts with my art.
So, yes, I guess all of that to say, it’s hard and scary, but I’m trying more and more to just be vulnerable in my art and my life and to let the pieces fall where they may. I grew up in neon-Warped Tour music culture, so I considered giving my project a name when it began. However, under the influence of stuff like The Chariot and what I was learning about punk and hardcore, I realized the best thing I could be is raw and honest. No matter what I called this all, people would know it’s just some guy up there named Chris. They could know it and see it, and I knew it and could see it (obviously), so I decided to just admit it, call it out, and be myself. Sometimes, my poems have real separations between the speaker and myself as the poet, and often I do the V-for-Vendetta bit of “artists use lies to tell the truth”—like in “Move,” my parents didn’t have a basement for me to live in, but the sentiment of that is true for where I was in my life—but, ultimately, I just want to offer where I am and what I know as best and honestly as I can. The decision to incorporate really extra specific stuff in this album (stuff like my friends’ names and things like that) came from my friend Janelle Maree. She writes these intensely, intensely personal poems and, through doing so, achieves these universal experiences and truths. It’s really beautiful and incredible to experience and really inspired me to give it a try and push in even deeper to it than usual.