Wednesday, June 20, 2018

New Poem: "A Pragmatist's Guide to Magic" + Consolidated List of Activist Resources



"This is my disillusionment. Not the absence of hope; the absence of illusion."

I'm always grateful for the signal-boosts that I get from Button, but I am especially grateful for this one. This is a poem that I've been working on for years, through multiple drafts, through my own growth and shifting consciousness. I'm not sure that it would ever win a slam or get published in a big journal, but I know it's one of the best things that I've written.

I'm also grateful that it's coming out now. This month.

I wanted to use this post not only to share the poem, but to consolidate some of the posts that I've been making lately sharing resources and strategies for people who are interested in getting involved in activist work. Because now is the time. I hope you can find something useful in these:

My TEDx Talk: Five Things Art Taught Me About Activism
Despite the title, this is not just for artists. This is a talk about how the questions that artists ask often mirror the questions that emerging/aspiring activists ask. The steps that artists take from idea, to concept, to art often mirror the steps that activists take from value, to principle, to action. If you're looking to dive in, but don't know where to start, this is for you.

For People Who Want to "Do" Something But Don't Know What to Do
This is a piece I wrote sharing some of the basics of how everyday people can use the power that we have to make a difference. It also features a big list of cool Twin Cities-area activist organizations. It's built around the phrase: "Just because you don't have the power to run out the front door and magically 'fix' everything, it doesn't mean that you don't have power."

For People Who Aren't Usually "Political" but Know that Something Very Wrong is Happening Right Now
This piece is more specifically about the family separation crisis that has been in the news this past month. It shares links to good local organizations, plus a few potential action steps.

Beyond the Benefit: Ten Ways Artists Can Help Build and Support Movements
While the previous three links are for everyone, this one is focused on artists-- especially musicians, MCs, and other performers. Because one powerful thing we can do is take spaces that are not activist spaces, and *make* them activist spaces. Burst the bubbles.

A Few Thoughts on "Political" Poetry and How Artists Can Respond to the Present Moment
Another post about agency and action, this time zooming in on poets specifically. Let's make some noise.

MN Databases: MNActivist.com (organizations) and MNActivist.org (local government meetings and events); plus an app.

Finally, a quote; this is from Tony Kushner, by way of Mariame Kaba:
I do not believe the wicked always win. I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves. In many other periods of history, people, ordinary citizens, routinely set aside hours, days, time in their lives for doing the work of politics, some of which is glam and revolutionary and some of which is dull and electoral and tedious and not especially pure – and the world changed because of the work they did. That's what we're starting now. It requires setting aside the time to do it, and then doing it. Not any single one of us has to or possibly can save the world, but together in some sort of concert, in even not-especially-coordinated concert, with all of us working where we see work to be done, the world will change. And we have to do it by showing up places, our bodies in places, turn off the fucking computers, leave the Web and the Net – and show up, our bodies at meetings and demos and rallies and leafletting corners. 
Because this is a moment in history that needs us to begin, each of us every day at her or his own pace, slowly and surely rediscovering how to be politically active, how to organize our disparate energies into effective group action – and I choose to believe we will do what is required. Act. Organize. Assemble. Oppose. Resist. Find a place a cause a group a friend and start, today, now now now, continue continue continue. (source)

Feel free to add more in the comments! Here's the full text of the poem:

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
  • "A thread of things we can do."
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