Monday, June 18, 2018

A Few Thoughts on "Political" Poetry and How Artists Can Respond to the Present Moment

An image released by border patrol showing the McAllen, Texas detention facility; source.

This whole post is a writing prompt.

First, some background, since while everyone on my social media is already talking about this, I know that isn't the case everywhere. And this is an issue we all need to know about:
  • Inside look at Border Patrol facility in Texas housing hundreds of children (CBS)
  • Trump Again Falsely Blames Democrats for His Separation Tactic (NYT)
  • ‘America is better than this’: What a doctor saw in a Texas shelter for migrant children (Washington Post)
  • Trump and the Baby Snatchers (NYT)
  • Alida Garcia's Twitter thread sharing organizations to donate to and ways to get involved.
  • More links and action ideas in my post from last month
These are policies that demand a response. And because one thing I've learned from organizers is "know your lane and identify what power you have in it," I wanted to zoom in and share a few thoughts specifically about what that response might look like when it comes from poets, MCs, musicians, and other writers. As always, nothing here is prescriptive, or will apply the same way to every individual. But for those who are interested in how artists (especially poets) might respond to the present moment, I wanted to at least spark some dialogue:

A Few Thoughts on Writing "Political" Poetry
I want to be precise with that phrase: "political" poetry. There's a much longer post one could write about that label and how it gets applied to all kinds of poetry, how the act of creation can be inherently political, and how the identities that we hold impact how audiences hear our work as "political" or not. For this post, I'm talking about poems that intentionally, explicitly engage with specific political issues. 

Also, these are thoughts on one particular angle of that process. I'm not including some of the more general stuff that we often talk about in workshops (like the power of storytelling, or using concrete vs. abstract language, or thinking critically about structure, etc.), but you can find some of that here

1. Speak Up, but Speak with Intentionality
Fascism thrives on silence, on people seeing something awful, shrugging their shoulders, and assuming it'll all just work out. So yes, we need to speak up. We need to use whatever platforms we have to spread the word about what's happening. But just because silence is unacceptable, that doesn't mean that running around screaming is the answer. So research. Read. Listen first.

The next three points all kind of revolve around a deeper question of who should write about what in the first place. There are valid arguments to be made about how it can be problematic when, for example, white people write about racism, or men write about sexism-- just in general, no matter how "good" the writing is. That's maybe a longer post, but the point I'm trying to make here is largely a contextual one: when we're talking about creeping fascism, it's going to take as large a chorus as we can muster to push back; it's just that that speaking up process needs to be done carefully and intentionally. It's hard. It's very easy to do poorly. Figuring out how to do it well takes experience, and community, and critical self-reflection, but it is possible. The next few points offer a few thoughts on that.

2. What is Your Story to Tell? How Does it Connect?
Not every poem about war has to be from the perspective of a soldier. Not every poem about human trafficking has to be from the perspective of someone being trafficked. These may be the easiest entry points, and some writers can indeed speak from those perspectives because they have the life experience to back it up. But not everyone does-- and part of being a writer is figuring out how to speak up without speaking for or over others. What identities do you hold? What is your story? How does it connect to the issue you're writing about? It may or may not be an obvious connection.

This can be as simple as: rather than writing about what it's like in a camp set up for children separated from their parents at the border, you write about the moment you read that story in the newspaper-- where are you? What is your body's reaction? What does it make you think about? You still get to signal boost the information and spread the word, but you're telling your own story. And sure, a poem about reading the newspaper may not be super engaging; but that same basic framework can be pushed into more creative places.

3. Make Appropriate Connections
One reason why poetry is valuable is because it's a space where we can connect ideas and experiences that don't always get connected. That process of juxtaposition can highlight new truths about those ideas and experiences. For example, I wrote a poem about my family, Japanese internment, and the current refugee crisis; it's not a one-to-one, linear relationship between issues, but there are important historical and contextual connections we can make to help us understand what's going on.

While this relates to the previous point about figuring out how your story intersects with the issue you're writing about, it also highlights a potential danger: not every connection is appropriate. For example, a poem that compares being bullied for wearing glasses to slavery or the Holocaust would not be appropriate. That's an extreme example, but more subtle examples pop up all the time. The point here is that there's a way to make connections without saying "X is exactly like Y" or "I fully understand this horror because I experienced this other thing." When in doubt, ask others for feedback.

4. Find an Angle
Building on the previous two points, this is a note about how we approach the poem. A lot of poems are basically built around the phrase "here's what I think!" and while it is possible to work with that, a laundry list of thoughts isn't always the most effective start. How else might you approach a poem about a specific issue? How can you write about something from a fresh angle? What concept or structuring impulse might help the poem "stick" in people's heads?

Maybe it's about filling in some historical context that people don't know about. Maybe it's about zooming in on one specific detail of the larger story in order to comment on the bigger picture. Maybe it's about that aforementioned process of exploring how the issue affects you and your personal experience. Maybe it's about leaning into magical realism, satire, or hyperbole to challenge people to see an issue in a new light. Maybe it's an open letter (especially to someone the audience doesn't already expect). Maybe it's a poem that incorporates a specific call to action.

5. Think About What the Audience Walks Away With
This may be a controversial point, but I think it's at least worth considering. Of course, you never have to think about what the audience walks away from a poem with, but with political poetry, you might want to. This is not to say that every poem has to be inspirational. This is not to say that every poem has to have one specific action item at the end. It's a broader call for more intentionality.

For example, someone could write a poem about how the phrase "tearing children from their parents is unAmerican" is actually ahistorical, since this country has done just that at many points throughout history. But there's a difference between a poem that makes that point in order to show how smart the poet is, and a poem that makes that point in order to deepen the audience's commitment to doing something about that.

Another example: someone could write a poem about fascism and authoritarianism, and how they're creeping further and further into US culture, policy, and politics. That could be the whole poem-- "fascism is here and it's bad." But there's an opportunity there to push the audience further. The poem could be "fascism is here, it's bad, and here's what we can do about it." The poem could be "fascism is here, it's bad, and I'm thankful to the thousands of activists who are pushing back every day."

Art can be anthemic without being corny. It can cultivate hope without having a neatly-wrapped happy ending. It can call us to action without presenting platitudes and easy answers. That's all part of the challenge: art can inform, but it can also mobilize. Both are good, but the latter has a special power.

6. It Doesn't Have to Be a Poem
Just a quick final note that as artists, we can still use our platforms to talk about these issues even if we're not able to figure out a good way to talk about them in our actual artistic work. Get involved on the ground, show up, signal boost, perform at fundraisers, and make noise. A few expanded thoughts on that here.

Feel free to add more in the comments.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Poem of the Month: “Come Home” by Kevin Yang



Call me Hmong before you call me American/ because Hmong is the closest word I know to home...

I've been doing weekly write-ups of certain poems on Button Poetry's channel, but I also wanted to highlight some older poems that are personal favorites of mine, which I'll be doing once per month here. It's a way to shout out some good work, and also to highlight some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers.

The first line of this poem is “Eight responses to the phrase ‘go back to where you came from,’” and Yang uses that setup to craft a narrative that is both deeply political and deeply personal. Specifically, there’s a moment in the poem where the phrase/question is turned back to its speaker: “Do you ever wonder where you come from?” That structure—starting with a kind of defensive humor and naturally transitioning into proud defiance, using the language itself as a fulcrum—gives this poem a powerful arc.

A lot of aspiring/emerging poets struggle with structure. This may be because of the stereotype of poetry as this kind of magical, pure, stream-of-consciousness expression. And sure, that can be powerful. But if you watch enough *good* spoken word, you’ll see how much intentionality goes into structure-- not "structure" in the same way that sonnets or haikus have specific rules/formats, but more like an organizing impulse. That may be as simple as giving a poem an introduction, middle, climax, and resolution (with intentional transitions between ideas), or something more complex and challenging that plays with formula and subverts audience expectations.

When talking about this broader idea of structure with students, we often ask questions like: Is there a reason the poem starts where it starts? Could it start somewhere else? Is there a reason the poem ends where it ends? Does it "earn" that ending based on what came before? How does the poem "move" from one stanza/idea/section to the next? What would the effect of rearranging some of those ideas be? When you say the poem out loud, does it "feel" right in terms of its flow and timing?

If you know Kevin Yang's work, you may also know how good he is at structuring poems. He’s also, for me, one of the best at taking on explicitly political issues and putting a human face on them. This is a poem about big issues like xenophobia, the refugee experience, and finding home, but it’s also a poem about small, specific moments-- the conversation with the elder, the wisdom of the mother, the hummingbird. As poets, we earn the "big stuff" via the care we put into writing the "little stuff," and Yang does that so well.

Further Reading:
  • Doualy Xaykaothao: To Be Midwestern and Hmong (The Atlantic)
  • Be sure to check out Kevin’s other poems online! He's one of my favorite poets, and has a ton of work that is especially useful for teachers/educators looking for poems to use in the classroom.
  • Full list of poem commentary/analysis essays

Saturday, May 26, 2018

For People Who Aren't Usually "Political" but Know that Something Very Wrong is Happening Right Now

(EDIT: lots of people have been sharing this Twitter thread, which outlines the danger of conflating the two issues talked about below, plus some more important context, as well as this one, with even more context and action ideas. Both are worth a read.)

Only have five minutes? Read an article from the first section, follow the organizations listed in the second section, and use the template in the third section to contact your reps.

This past week, news broke that the US government is "now systematically taking children as young as 53 weeks old away from their parents at the border, thanks to new directives issued by the Trump administration" (link). At the same time, we're hearing about how federal agencies have "lost track of" nearly 1500 children who had been placed with sponsors (which is a separate, ongoing issue). Some of those children are believed to have ended up in the hands of human traffickers.

There's always bad news in the world, yes. And we can argue all day about what constitutes "uniquely" bad news, or "major" shifts in already-harmful policy. We can (and should) talk about how immigration policy in particular has been a bipartisan travesty, and not solely a result of Trump. We can (and should) talk about how separating children from their families as a matter of law has happened before in this country.

But let's at least agree that this is bad. This is wrong. This is one of those "if you had been alive when (historical injustice) happened, what role would you have played?" moments. This is connected to larger trends. And we have a responsibility to do something about it. So what do we do?

I want to share a few links and resources here, partly informed by my TEDx Talk (which was about the power of taking big, overwhelming issues and "zooming in" on them to create specific actions), and partly by this quote from Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture on Twitter):

Questions I regularly ask myself when I'm outraged about injustice:
1. What resources exist so I can better educate myself?
2. Who's already doing work around this injustice?
3. Do I have the capacity to offer concrete support & help to them?
4. How can I be constructive?

I feel like that's a very elegant, practical way to think about this. Even for people who do organizing work every day, it can be overwhelming. For those us just getting involved, or who have never identified as an activist "or political" in any way, it can be frustrating to figure what you can actually do. I hope the following can be useful.

Links and Resources for More Information
"Raising awareness" on its own may not be enough to disrupt injustice, but that disruption isn't going to happen without it. Here are a few articles (some news, some analysis) looking at both the United States' very recent and relatively recent immigration policy; one simple action idea is to share one of these on Facebook and/or Twitter every day for the next week.

Parents, children ensnared in 'zero-tolerance' border prosecutions (Arizona Daily Star)
Alma Jacinto covered her eyes with her hands as tears streamed down her cheeks. The 36-year-old from Guatemala was led out of the federal courtroom without an answer to the question that brought her to tears: When would she see her boys again? Jacinto wore a yellow bracelet on her left wrist, which defense lawyers said identifies parents who are arrested with their children and prosecuted in Operation Streamline, a fast-track program for illegal border crossers.

Border Patrol Kicked, Punched Migrant Children, Threatened Some with Sexual Abuse, ACLU Alleges (Newsweek)
Based on 30,000 pages of documents obtained through a records request, the report includes gruesome, detailed accusations of physical and mental abuse at the hands of officers.

Video: Chris Hayes on 'despicable' new Trump policy (MSNBC)
The United States government is now systematically taking children as young as 53 weeks old away from their parents at the border, thanks to new directives issued by the Trump administration.

Treatment and rhetoric about undocumented children put the Trump administration in a new category on hard-line immigration policy (Washington Post)
In an NPR interview earlier this month, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was asked if using family separation as a “tough deterrent” to keep families from attempting to illegally immigrate into the United States was “cruel and heartless.” “I wouldn't put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever,” he said.

Betsy DeVos Stirs Uproar By Saying Schools Can Call ICE On Undocumented Kids (HuffPo)
“Let’s be clear: Any school that reports a child to ICE would violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court has made clear that every child in America has a right to a basic education, regardless of immigration status. Secretary DeVos is once again wrong,” said Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns for the ACLU, in a statement. 

A BETRAYAL: The teenager told police all about his gang, MS-13. In return, he was slated for deportation and marked for death (ProPublica)
Confused, Henry told the agents he was already working with the police. He asked them to call Tony. Instead, after interrogating him, the ICE agents put him on a bus... He was headed to an ICE detention center full of young men suspected of being MS-13 members — the very same ones he had snitched on.

And here are two pieces about the missing 1,500 children, which we should know about while also seeking out further context (like this, but please feel free to add more in the comments):

Federal Agencies Lost Track of Nearly 1,500 Migrant Children Placed With Sponsors (NYT)
The children were taken into government care after they showed up alone at the Southwest border. Most of the children are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence and domestic abuse, government data shows.

HHS Official Says Agency Lost Track of Nearly 1,500 Unaccompanied Minors (PBS Frontline)
“It’s just a system that has so many gaps, so many opportunities for these children to fall between the cracks, that we just don’t know what’s going on — how much trafficking or abuse or simply immigration law violations are occurring,” said the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Rob Portman.

Who Is Already Doing This Work, and How Can We Support Them?
The answer to this question will be different in different communities, but I will use the Twin Cities as an example. If you're here too, hopefully you can check these organizations out. If you're not, a quick online search like "(your city or state) + immigrant rights organization" or something like that may turn up something.

From there, it may be a matter of showing up and getting directly involved, or showing up to an action organized by one of these groups (like this one from just a few days ago), or donating money, or organizing a fundraising event, or something else. But being plugged in, following these organizations on social media (now!), joining their email lists, etc. is an easy step.

The Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee
MIRAC is the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee. It is an all-volunteer grassroots organization that organizes the immigrant community and their allies to struggle for legalization for all and equality in all aspects of life. We struggle for legalization, for a moratorium on raids and deportations, and for drivers licenses for all regardless of immigration status. MIRAC was formed in Spring 2006 out of the huge immigrant rights marches. We’ve organized many protests, marches and other activities for immigrant rights in Minnesota since then. (Twitter | Facebook | IG)

Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM) is a nonprofit agency that provides immigration legal assistance to low-income immigrants and refugees in Minnesota. ILCM also works to educate Minnesota communities and professionals about immigration matters, and advocates for state and federal policies which respect the universal human rights of immigrants. (Twitter | Facebook | IG)

Navigate MN
Mission: NAVIGATE/ Unidos MN  is a millennial driven Latinx based organization that builds power for gender, racial and economic justice. Navigate MN envisions a visible Latinx community with clear vehicles and tools to build intergenerational economic, cultural and political wealth and like this contribute to the wellbeing and the prosperity of all Minnesotans, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, immigration status, dis/ability and gender identity. (Twitter | Facebook)

There are also national organizations like United We Dream, the ACLU, the Immigrant Defense ProjectAmnesty International, and others. Please feel free to add others in the comments.

Voting, Contacting Our Reps, and Holding Our Leaders Accountable
The upcoming elections offer opportunities beyond simply casting a ballot. A few thoughts:

1. Contact Your Elected Representatives. Find them here. Demand to know what their specific action plans are to address this. Call, email, Tweet, show up to town halls, and everything else. Make noise, especially if one of your reps is a moderate or on-the-fence. In can be something as simple as:

Dear (your rep): I am gravely concerned about new developments in the Trump administration's immigration policy, especially the practice of separating children from their families. Please share what your plan is to address this.

Find more tips for contacting your reps here, here, and here.

2. Make Immigration Justice a Core Part of the 2018 Platform. Every politician running for office in the midterms should feel the pressure to come out strongly in favor of addressing this problem, abolishing ICE, and committing to the safety of these children and families. Let candidates know that in order to earn YOUR vote, they must have a clear, specific plan in place to address this injustice.

3. Vote. As I wrote above, the Democrats, and Obama in particular, don't have a great track record when it comes to immigration policy. That being said, I would also argue that Trump's normalization of hate, dehumanizing language, and policies designed to let ICE "off the leash" are something uniquely odious, and something very much worth fighting against now. Change is driven by grassroots movements, and my position is that while Democrats aren't perfect, they can be pressured by those movements in ways that Republicans can't. Voting for liberals won't change anything by itself, but it can help clear the way for the movement work that will change things. So mark your calendars for the 2018 midterms, tell everyone you know to do the same, and send a big damn message.

Plug In. Stay Engaged. Commit. 
There's a lot more to talk about here. We need to talk about direct action, underground railroads, and the disruption of business-as-usual. A sense of urgency is necessary. But this post is only meant to be a starting point-- learn more, get connected, and be ready to act. I think one thing that intimidates people about activism is feeling like they have to have all the answers and solve all the problems on their own. But this is going to be a collective effort. It's going to take ALL of us, plugging in where and when and however we can, combining our efforts to create change. 

When you look at the large task before you, it can feel hopeless. So don't look at that. Look at a small, specific piece of it. Email this post, or one of the links in it, to five of your friends or family members. Go through all the social media links and follow the organizations doing this work. Look into who's running for what office where you live this fall. There's no one magic answer to this problem; there's just the work.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

New Video: "When They Look Right Through You"



This is an older poem (in my book, it's called "Cartpushers"), but it's probably one that not many people have actually heard. I'm happy to finally get quality footage of a decent performance. We ran with a different title for the video, hopefully something a bit more evocative. Two quick notes:

1. This poem is about the first job I ever had, and is dedicated to all the cartpushers, cashiers, drivers, servers, bartenders, and other service workers out there. For me, a fundamental pillar of spoken word is the idea that everyone has a story, and every story matters. So one of the most powerful things we can do is tell the stories that most people never choose to hear.

2. This poem also, for me, illustrates something I really appreciate about slam poetry as a style (which is, of course, a generalization, since a slam poem can be whatever you want it to be... I'm thinking more about tropes/formulas/common approaches): this isn't a poem that really "works" until you hear the last line. Everything else builds up to that. There aren't a ton of IG-ready quotes to share; it's really about the whole being more than the sum of its parts. I think spoken word is uniquely situated to build these little three-minute "experiences," and this poem falls into that tradition.

As always, I appreciate when people buy my book, but I also like to make the text available:

Friday, May 11, 2018

Poem of the Month: "Unforgettable" by Pages Matam, Elizabeth Acevedo, and G. Yamazawa



My name wasn’t given to me/ it was given to the rest of the country...

I've been doing weekly write-ups of certain poems on Button Poetry's channel, but I also wanted to highlight some older poems that are personal favorites of mine, which I'll be doing once per month here. It's a way to shout out some good work, and also to highlight some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers.

I remember my first time seeing this poem, and really being struck by G.’s line: "In Japan, your last name comes first; there is an emphasis on family. But in America, your nickname comes first, 'cause there is an emphasis on accessibility." For me, that’s one of the most important functions of poetry: to call out what’s hiding in plain sight, to encourage all of us to think more critically, and more intentionally, about topics we’re not always encouraged to think deeply about. Everyone has a name; how much do you think about where yours came from? What does it mean to you? What does it express, and what does it not express? How do our names move with us as we move through the world? These are big questions.

The whole poem is a great example of using something “small” and personal (names) as an entry point to explore an issue that is much bigger. While all three poets approach that issue from different angles, with different experiences, the overall “thesis statement” of the poem is laser-focused. This is a useful thing for aspiring poets to remember: there’s a difference between a poem about a topic and a poem that has a specific thing to say about that topic. This is a poem that knows what it is, so to speak, and communicates its message all the more powerfully because of that.

Feel free to share any of your own thoughts or observations about the poem (or its topic) in the comments.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

New Interview + Some Book Recommendations

Looking for book recommendations? Here's one of my favorite interviews I've done, since I basically just got to shout out a bunch of my favorite writers: N.K. Jemisin, Danez Smith, Carmen Maria Machado, Ed Bok Lee, Patricia Smith, Bao Phi, Jeff Chang, Marjorie Liu, Emily St. John Mandel, Ruth Ozeki, and more!

Check it out.

Speaking of books, some cool news concerning my book coming soon. A sincere thanks to everyone who's picked up a copy.

Monday, April 23, 2018

New Poem: "Thoughts and Prayers"



This is a brand new poem; basically a "written the day of the performance" poem. It's kind of an experimental piece, in terms of how it work as a "poem," but addresses something that a lot of my work engages with in one way or another: power.

On that note, I also wanted to share this series of videos from Ricardo Levins Morales, that I would encourage every aspiring activist or organizer to watch.

I'll also refer people back to this post, which includes a ton of links, resources, and poems on the connections between violence (especially mass shootings) and how we talk about masculinity.

Full text of the poem below: