Samantha Thornhill is a poet, author, educator & producer from the island nation of Trinidad & Tobago. At the age of eight, she moved to the US, and that soon began her journey into the world of words. She started to write creatively when her sixth grade English teacher asked her class to write poem about Christmas. Poetry connected her to the rich smells, tastes, and memories of a Trinidadian Christmas. After that, writing became an outlet, for her untapped ideas, emotions, and imagination.
At Wellington High School, in West Palm Beach, Samantha’s 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Zucker helped her to evolve in her craft. He was also the teacher advisor of the school’s literary magazine, Poetry Justice, of which Samantha became a staff writer, then a poetry editor. By senior year, she was named editor-in-chief. She notes that as one of her grandest high school achievements, along with graduating with honors.
Next, she was off to college at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she majored in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, and a minor in Black Studies. She attended FSU during an era when the English Department had the highest assembly of Black professors, who shaped her growing knowledge and acquainted her with Black poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Rita Dove. In particular, she found a mentor in Dr. Chanta Haywood, who taught African American literature and literary theory. Samantha feels FSU was the best college experience, in part, because of all of her influential professors.
Also, while in college, she ventured into spoken word. Though she had published her work all through high school, she had never performed her work, until now. FSU is where she began her hobby as a spoken word artist, when she performed at a school function that received the attention of Keith Rogers, leader of the local Back Talk poetry troupe. He invited her to perform at a Thursday night reading he curated, Black on Black Rhyme, where she rendered a poem. Again, Rogers was impressed by her writing skills, and asked her to be a part of Back Talk, which launched her spoken word career.
Samantha describes this as a time when she started to live a double life. There was a version of her that appeared in academic workshops, and then there was Samantha Raheem, or Lady Griot, who was becoming a popular spoken word artist on the local Tallahassee scene. As a part of Back Talk, she performed in places like barbershops, and sold poetry compilations. There, she discovered most people had a propensity to like poetry, but lacked the exposure. That confidence lead her to produce her first studio poetry album, Uncircumcised, Raw & Uncut.
By her junior year, she was a traveling to different cities to perform poetry and sell her CD. Readings and poets like Patricia Smith taught her that it was possible to create poetry that read beautifully, and would also sing in the ear.
Off the strength of her full experience at Florida State, she applied to grad school to learn more tools of the craft— goal was to achieve a writing career. She knew she wanted to study under former US poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rita Dove, so she applied to University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It was a two-year MFA program with only five people admitted in the poetry program, each year. In 2002, Samantha was one of the five chosen, and attended UVA on a Henry Hoyns Fellowship. While she had created such a strong spoken word community in Tallahassee, at first she struggled with connecting at UVA. She craved the raw power of spoken word, and often felt alienated by the lofty discussions around poetry that seemed to have no tangible impact on the world, at large. She participated in poetry slams in surrounding cities like Richmond and Norfolk, thus continuing her double life. She was studious during the week, and slamming and performing nationwide on the weekends. Also during her time at UVA, she produced her second CD, Me-rror, Mirror. After quitting her part time job at Barnes & Nobles, she made her living teaching Intro to Poetry at the University, freelance writing, and performing and selling her CDs across the country.
The summer of 2003, she applied to the Cave Canem summer retreat, and was accepted. There, she made friends with Black poets from around the world, which changed her life. She attended another summer retreat in 2004, and become a graduating fellow in the summer of 2006. She also graduated from the University of Virginia, Summa Cum Laude, in 2004.
After graduation, she went to Soul Mountain writing retreat for two months, under the direction of Marilyn Nelson, who she met at Cave Canem. Nelson was the poet laureate of Connecticut at that time. During the retreat, she began work on a young adult novel entitled Seventeen Seasons. Then in October of 2004, she moved to New York City to take a job as a poetry instructor to first year drama students at The Juilliard School. She also took residencies at Harlem Children Zone and Satellite Academy teaching youth, taught a semester at Medgar Evers College and became a program director at the Children’s Aid Society in East Harlem, where she designed and oversaw after school programs, summer camps, and mentorship programs for middle and high school aged youth. She also continued to perform, locally and nationally.
While in grad school, Samantha had written freelance poetry book reviews for Black Issues Book Review, and had gained the attention of one of the founding editors, Adrienne Ingrum. Once in New York, Samantha and Ingrum, also a literary agent, finally met in person. Ingrum solicited Samantha as a client, and after receiving a copy of the Seventeen Seasons manuscript-in-progress, offered to be Samantha’s agent.
The year of 2005 was an impactful year in Samantha’s life. Aside from starting her teaching post at Juilliard, she befriended Kenneth Foster Jr., after a friend of his introduced him to her work. When Foster became of fan, this friend reached out and communicated this to Samantha. She learned, then, that Foster was serving a death sentence after driving his friend away from a spontaneous murder his friend committed. Under the Law of Parties in Texas, Kenneth would stand trial in conjunction with his friend. Several letters exchanged between them, Samantha joined the movement to help Foster to save his life in 2007, when he was given an execution date. Six hours before lethal injection, the governor Rick Perry commuted Kenneth’s death sentence, to life in prison. Later, Foster’s daughter Nydesha would inspire a documentary Samantha headed called Daddy’s Glass House.
In 2006, Simon & Schuster published her book, Everyone Hates School Presentations, based on the popular Everybody Hates Chris television series. Then in 2007, Ingrum sold a draft of Seventeen Seasons to Penguin Putnam. With so many things on her agenda, she decided to quit her full time job at the Children’s Aid Society to pursue of life of teaching and writing. Samantha took a post teaching senior citizens through a program with Poets & Writers Inc.
Samantha caught the travel bug in 2007, which brought her first chance at international travel, as a poet. She headlined the Arts Alive Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa. 2008 brought more journeys, when she received a travel grant from the Jerome Foundation, and she returned to South Africa, and then to her homeland of Trinidad & Tobago for three months. 2009 came with an invite to tour three cities with poet Bob Holman, in Hungary. During World Cup activities in 2010, she returned to South Africa to perform in Cape Town, Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape. She also performed and taught a workshop at the House on Fire in the Kingdom of Swaziland. The following summer brought a writing seminar in Greece to study with poet Carolyn Forche, for which she received a scholarship through her affiliation with Cave Canem. After Greece, she toured Europe with South African Reggae band, The Champions. In 2012, she returned to that seminar in Greece, and later that summer, through Fund for Teachers, she traveled to Cuba for 20 days filming Cubans from all around the country.
Throughout the years, Samantha has also attended several writing retreats such as Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers, and Squaw Valley Writing Retreat. Each experience shaped her in its own special way, and connected her with poets and writers that enriched her literary life greatly. With the help of these productive bouts of reprieve from the constant teaching, and the hustle and bustle of city life, Samantha has continued to work on her young adult projects, as well as her poetry manuscript-in-progress.
In 2009, she took a writer in residence position at the Bronx Academy of Letters, teaching creative writing and non-fiction to middle and high school students. Things came full circle for her when she to became an advisor for the high school newspaper, where she created a strong community of young writers. In fact, she still mentors many of the students she previously taught. Alongside her work at Bronx Letters, she still held teaching positions with Juilliard (where she serves on the audition committee for the drama division) and Poets & Writers senior workshop. Also, that year, Samantha formed Medusa Strings Theory, a poetry and musical trio, with singer-songwriter Valerie June and bassist Mimi Jones.
That same year, she taught a workshop at Riker’s Island. She also performed a full poetry set at Prospect Park for thousands of non poetry goers, as well as a clinic administering HIV testing. These unique and indelible experiences sparked the idea of an organization that Samantha would launch in 2010, and while applying for the Brooklyn Poet Laureate position that year, this idea further manifested in her head. She didn’t receive the title, but wanted to bring her ideas into fruition. She began the venture, Poets in Unexpected Places, with poets John Sands and Adam Falkner. Their first performance was during national poetry month in April of 2010. Samantha, Jon and Adam, along with five other poets, met up at Union Square and boarded the Q train, like strangers. While all in the same car, Samantha stood and recited a poem by Lucille Clifton. Then, one after the one, the poets revealed themselves from all parts of the subway car by reciting poems, and successfully completed their first pop up poetry performance. It garnered strangers to get up and recite their own verses. The group received a large ovation. After that, the daring group performed consistently in public, grew in numbers, and added two new curators, Elana Bell, and Syreeta McFadden.
Momentum started to build for PUP. In 2012, it caught the attention of the New York Times, which published a multimedia article on the group. This made Samantha and her team of curators extremely busy, as the group began to field invites, and expanded the spaces they allowed their poetry to inhabit. They were asked to conduct their enlivening pop ups in Upstate New York high schools, downtown Montreal, New York University classrooms, Queens Museum of Art, and Brooklyn Academy of Music. They also presented panel discussions on their work at AWP Writing Conference, as well as Split this Rock, in Washington DC. The group is still active on the ground level, however, and Samantha has organized poetry pop ups as a form of artistic activism on the Statue of Liberty cruise line, Kara Walker exhibit at the Domino Sugar Factory, as well as in Union Square in response in police brutality against Blacks in the US.
For her Daddy’s Glass House documentary, Samantha toured Italy, France, England, and the Netherlands, filming testimonies from proponents of the American death penalty. She also filmed high school teens, as they engaged in dialogue about the prison system’s affect on their generation, to juxtapose with Nydesha Foster’s story. Additionally, in 2013, she featured in, and co-authored, a short film with director / cinematographer Zac Murphy, which was sponsored by the German company, Siemens. Their film, “The Inspiring Flame” can be found on the company’s website.
In 2014, Samantha ended her time at Bronx Academy of Letters to accept a consulting job with Russell Simmons for his newest poetry venture, All Def Poetry YouTube channel. A poetry producer for the channel, Samantha curates and produces film shoots of performance poets from all across the country. In addition, Samantha also continues to teach workshops at Juilliard and Lincoln Square, while working on her film, writing, and passion projects.
Written by DeShara Suggs-Joe