Wednesday, May 22, 2013

New Opine Season column, Brave New Voices, new music from friends, assorted links


1. Help support the Minnesota Brave New Voices team
I have the honor of coaching the MN team this year, 6 (officially, but it's really more like 9) absolutely brilliant teen poets. Seriously, they're incredible. We're working on some more events to showcase their talent before we leave for BNV in August, but in the meantime, you can help us all to Chicago by donating here.

2. My New Opine Season Column on BURNOUT:
My Opine Season column this week is about BURNOUT, and strategies to avoid it for activists, artists, educators and anyone. If you have a thought, leave a comment!

3. New Music from See More Perspective:
See More Perspective is criminally underrated, and this is the third in his series of seasonal EPs. It's available now for pay-what-you-want. All three so far have contained some absolute gems. "Dandelions" is my favorite on this one. Such good songwriting.

4. New Poem from Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria:

Rodrigo always has something good to say, and he returns with a new poem about fatherhood and "dispelling the myth of the absent Latino father." He writes more about this piece and this subject here.

5. Ring Ring Poetry debuts, includes one of my pieces
Local poet Cole Sarar has been working on this project for a while; basically, you use a phone to call in to listen to poems about different places in the Twin Cities. It's kind of a virtual tour, exploring place, identity and more. My piece "It Is Cold Here, But It Is Also Hot" is included. Here's the link.

6. Ryan "Bugs" Virden-Williams: "On Fried Chicken and Active Whiteness"
Ryan doesn't pull any punches when he talks about race, racism and whiteness. This piece examines the recent Sergio Garcia/Tiger Woods controversy, and frames whiteness not just as a state of being but as an active force on the world.

7. A Conversation on Appreciation, Appropriation and Urban Outfitters
Lauren Van Schepen over at MPLSzine sits down with Lolla Mohammed Nur and Sasha Houston Brown to talk about UA's history of appropriation and how people can fight back. Read the whole interview here.

8. A GoFundMe campaign from the Brown Queer & Trans Empowerment Collective
The BQullecTivE is a new organization "for Queer and Trans* identified people of color based in the Twin Cities." They're trying to bring artist B.Steady to town for Pride, and they're all very cool people who deserve our support. You can pitch in here.

9. Ty Moore for MPLS City Council
Will post more about this later, but for now, be sure to check out activist Ty Moore's city council campaign. He's a radical, grassroots organizer, active in many struggles, and I think his perspective is valuable and important.

There's always so much happening in this community. I know I'm missing some others, but I hope you'll take a second to check some of this stuff out. For more frequent updates, follow me on Twitter.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Marriage Equality and the Myth of Inevitability

Originally published at Opine Season

I loved seeing the photos and reading the tweets this past Thursday when the MN House voted in favor of marriage equality. Lots of people are happy. I’m happy. This is good news, and as of this writing, more good news is likely on the way.

I’m especially happy for all the people I know who don’t just support equality and justice in some abstract sense, but who have worked so tirelessly to help build it—not just around marriage equality, but around a whole host of LGBTQ issues and beyond. Their stories are more inspiring to me than any politician’s or celebrity endorser’s.

It’s vital to remember that this victory is not the product of the “inevitable march of progress,” or some magical progressive domino effect, but of people working together. This is the result of thousands of hours of phone-banking and door-knocking, building organizations and institutions over the past few decades and beyond, writing hundreds of op-eds and press releases, having countless (sometimes difficult) conversations with family, neighbors and Facebook friends, individual acts of courage from members of the LGBTQ community, building community and trust with one another, and old-school, unglamorous, nose-to-the-grindstone organizing.

Yes, there is a large-scale cultural shift taking place. But large-scale cultural shifts don’t just happen. We create them.

How many movements have fallen victim to their own success, dissipating as soon as some symbolic goal was reached, or some vaguely-allied politician got elected? The best time to fight is after a victory. That’s what we’re seeing now, and that’s what I hope we continue to see in the months and years to come.

I don’t want to condescend. We all know that marriage equality isn’t the final goal, that there are many more battles yet to be fought. This is just a note of appreciation and respect for everyone already fighting those battles, and a reminder to myself and to anyone reading this to stay engaged, stay active, and never give up.

Change has never been as simple as electing the right leaders, or just waiting for the younger generation to displace the older one. It’s always been about struggle, about organizing, about people working together to build the world they want.

For anyone looking to get involved, I’d encourage you to check out these organizations: MN United, OutFront MN, the TC Avengers, Shades of Yellow, the Trans Youth Support Network, the MN Activist Project organization database, and the TC Indymedia organization database. There are many more; feel free to comment with others, and stay engaged!

Monday, May 06, 2013

Five Lessons Slam Poetry Taught Me About Media

Originally published at Opine Season

Jumping off from last week’s piece, here are a few thoughts on how those of us who write press releases, design flyers or websites, write essays or op-eds, give speeches, organize and promote events, post on social media, or engage in other kinds of media work can learn from arts practices. Specifically, slam poetry (the art/sport of competitive spoken-word) provides a few conventions to consider. And please save the “but slam poetry sucks” comments; that’s not what this is about, and I’ve written about that elsewhere.

Keep it short and punchy
The first time I read the phrase “tl;dr,” I had the same incredulous, monocle-popping reaction that many of you might have when you learn that it stands for “too long; didn’t read.” I asked the same old questions: Is our culture becoming less intelligent? Is this the end of art? Does everything have to be a dumbed-down soundbite now?

Of course, that’s an overreaction. Sure, people have shorter attention spans these days, but that’s not necessarily cause for alarm, just cause for adjustment. Just as slam poems have to make as big of an impact as possible in under three minutes, a time/length ceiling can be as much of a strength as it is a weakness. Challenge yourself to identify the main idea, seek out constructive criticism, trim the fat, and keep the forward momentum.

Identify your hook
As someone who is around poetry all the time, I hear a lot of beautifully written, powerfully performed poems. But the ones I remember, the ones that stick with me years into the future, are the ones that have fully realized hooks. The hook is the concept, the thing that makes your love poem different from all the other love poems. A good hook allows me to describe the poem in one sentence to someone else and have them know what I’m talking about: “that poem that uses Wile E. Coyote as a metaphor for addiction,” or “that poem where a black woman writes from the perspective of a white skinhead,” or “that runaway slave love poem,” etc.

In media terms, that means reaching beyond the basic information you’re presenting or the straightforward narrative and attempting to make some connections. This essay, for example, could just be “tips for media professionals,” but I’m using slam poetry as a lens to give those tips some context. It doesn’t have to be anything revolutionary—just something that makes it stick out from the pack, that frames your idea in a novel or engaging way.

The importance of craft, or “it is not enough to just be right”
I can think of dozens of poems that I agree with on a political or philosophical level but do not like. It is one thing to be “right” about an issue; it is something else entirely to be effective at communicating, clearly and powerfully, why you are “right.” The relevance of this simple idea to progressive and/or social justice circles cannot be overstated, but that’s another essay.

While poetry has a reputation for being “difficult,” I’ve found that my favorite poems use simple language and straightforward images to explore something profound, and the best non-artistic writing should follow suit—no jargon, no buzzwords, no abstract intellectualizing of the issues or holier-than-thou attitudes. Let’s tell stories. Let’s paint pictures. Let’s put a human face on our ideas and values and make them come to life.

Acknowledge context and audience
I have something like 50 poems in my head. At any given performance, I choose which ones to pull out, so being able to read the audience is an invaluable skill. As a media worker in any field, you have to know who your likely audience is, and who your target audience is (maybe they overlap; maybe they don’t). This will allow you to craft your writing to have maximum impact. Again, having a good message is not enough; saying “my audience is everyone” is a nice thought but not realistic. It’s about strategic thinking.

Competitiveness can have an upside
The oldest criticism of slam poetry is that art shouldn’t be about competition. And the oldest response to that criticism is that art is already about competition, and that slam just acknowledges that in an attempt to subvert it. Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, there are some important lessons here.

The media landscape is vast. Those of us who do media justice work, promote progressive causes, or just want to break through the static have an uphill battle. Whether the struggle is to get the people who already agree with you to act, to convince the people who don’t know any better to agree with you, or to reach out into hostile territory with a new message, a little competitive chip on your shoulder can help. Be ambitious. Watch your web analytics, set goals, and experiment with tactics. Collaborate and push one another. Believe in the value and importance of what you’re doing.

I know there may be a limited audience for a piece like this, but I hope some of this can be useful. Feel free to share any other tips or strategies, whether arts-related or not, in the comments.