Thursday, April 11, 2019

National Poetry Month Writing Prompts

Photo by Tony Gao
For those who don't know, April is National Poetry Month. For some, that means they share poetry on social media, or book poets to visit their schools (wink); others engage in "30/30s," writing 30 poems in 30 days.

To be honest, I've never done a 30/30 and don't plan to. I definitely encourage others to try it, as long as it feels like a healthy challenge, and not something stressful; it just doesn't work for my personal process. I do, however, love the idea of sharing writing prompts, little poem starters or ideas for people who are looking for some inspiration, or are struggling with writer's block.

TruArtSpeaks is sharing a writing prompt every day this month. Young Chicago Authors also has an archive of prompts. There are plenty of others online. For this post, I wanted to share a few of my own, with a small twist.

Most writing prompts focus on form (and that's great!); just for a change of pace, here are a few that focus on content instead, leaving the form part completely up to you. Maybe it's a sonnet, or a song, or a persona poem, or an open letter, or something else; but here are a few topics I'd personally like to hear more poems about.

I am not saying that these are the only important issues of our time. I am not saying that every poet should stop what they're doing and write about these topics right now. I am not in the business of telling people what to write about (especially since we all face different interests, pressures, and expectations). But for poets, songwriters, and other kinds of artists out there who ARE actively looking for a challenge, I'd offer these five prompts:

Sunday, March 24, 2019

#BeHeard19 Finals: Saturday, March 30, 2019

The 7th Annual Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam series wraps up on Saturday, March 30, at SteppingStone Theatre in Saint Paul. Here's a link to reserve tickets.

I work with TruArtSpeaks and spread the word about Be Heard every year, and Finals is always an incredible show, an opportunity to not just support young people, but also witness some of the most dynamic, forward-thinking writing and performance art our state has to offer. This year will be no different... but it also will be. It's always the right time to listen to youth, but these past few months have really driven that point home in a powerful way.

I got to host the last semifinal bout in this year's Be Heard series; this was just a day after a white supremacist murdered 49 people in New Zealand. That juxtaposition got me thinking, more than usual, about the importance of storytelling, about how narratives are controlled and spread, and about what power we have to shift dominant narratives.

From mass shootings to climate change to racial justice to education and beyond, young people are either at the forefront of our movements, or deserve to be. Be Heard has always been a platform for that particular truth, something that is bigger than poetry, bigger than "celebrating" youth. This is movement-building work. The stage is a big, open, public space for people to tell their stories, to present counter-narratives, and to build community.

So if you can make it, I'll see you there. If you can't, but you're still interested in this kind of thing, please check out my big list of local open mics, slams, and workshops; in particular, I always shout out TruArtSpeaks' ReVerb open mic. It's every Thursday, 6-8pm, at Golden Thyme Cafe in Saint Paul. That open mic is free and all-ages.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Song Spotlight: "You Say 'Millionaire' Like It's A Good Thing" (Big Cats Remix) + Some Great Links on Wealth and Inequality



“Right now, I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire.” --Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

With more and more discourse lately (online and in real life) about how corrupt and out-of-touch the super-rich are, I wanted to share a few thoughts and links related to this song. "You Say 'Millionaire' Like It's A Good Thing" has been around for a few years-- the original version of the song is available here, and the lyrics are included in my book. This remix, courtesy of Big Cats, is the song's Final Form-- a lean, focused burst of venom directed at the rich.

As a writer and as an activist, I'm really interested in the power of language to reframe issues. It's important to write songs and poems that describe poverty, that tell our stories, and that call us to action toward economic justice; this song, however, was an attempt to do something a little more specific: to reframe the accumulation of wealth as something that is not just "an unfortunate side effect of the system," but rather as something that is *morally* reprehensible.

There are caveats; I'm reminded of Jay-Z's "If you grew up with holes in your zapatos/ you'd celebrate the minute you was having dough." The argument here isn't that all rich people are "bad" on an individual level (although many absolutely are!); it's that a system that makes it possible for the distribution of wealth to be so extremely, so obscenely skewed is flat-out wrong. It is directly responsible for the death and suffering of too many people.

And sure, we can have conversations about how wealth is relative, how even working class people in the US "have it better" than x, y, or z other group... but that's part of the point of the song too-- there's a point where that relativity fails. Maybe it's not at a million dollars exactly; but somewhere on the wealth spectrum, earning becomes hoarding. Need becomes greed. Here are some articles that go more in-depth; I hope they can be useful, especially as so many of us are watching the 2020 candidates navigate this issue:

Christopher Ingraham: "Wealth concentration returning to ‘levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ according to new research" (Washington Post): "American wealth is highly unevenly distributed, much more so than income. According to Zucman’s latest calculations, today the top 0.1 percent of the population has captured nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth, giving them a greater slice of the American pie than the bottom 80 percent of the population combined."

Farhad Manjoo: "Abolish Billionaires" (NYT): "But the adulation we heap upon billionaires obscures the plain moral quandary at the center of their wealth: Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?"

Sophie Weiner: "AOC: A Society With Billionaires Cannot Be Moral" (Splinter): "'The question of marginal tax rates is a policy question but it’s also a moral question,' Ocasio-Cortez said. 'What kind of society do we want to live in? Are we comfortable with a society where someone can have a personal helipad while this city is experiencing the highest levels of poverty and homelessness since the Great Depression?'"

A.Q. Smith: "It's Basically Just Immoral To Be Rich" (Current Affairs): "It is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear."

Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark: "Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that." (Washington Post): "As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can."

Emmie Martin: "Here’s how much money you need to be happy, according to a new analysis by wealth experts" (CNBC): "'The lower a person's annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don't report any greater degree of happiness,' Time reported in 2010, citing a study from Princeton University conducted by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman."

Jesus, in the Bible: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Friday, February 08, 2019

Profiled in City Pages' 2019 "People" Issue

This interview/profile by Erik Thompson (featuring this photo from Colin Michael Simmons) is a good snapshot of what I'm up to these days.

One additional shout out: if you're interested in all that stuff that happens at the intersection of poetry, social justice, youth voice, and movement-building, I hope this is on your radar: The 2019 Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam series is happening right now, and heads into semifinals and finals next month.

Semifinals: March 9 at Metro State and March 16 at the Guthrie. Finals: March 30 at SteppingStone Theatre. All bouts start at 7pm, and they're some of the most exciting, emotionally charged, artistically dynamic events of the year. More info will be available via TruArtSpeaks.

As far as my own work goes, you can still catch my latest album here, my book here, and videos of my poems here. Thanks for tuning in.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

10 EXCERPTS FROM NEW YORK TIMES OP-EDS IN FICTIONAL REALITIES

(or “what happens when you understand conflict, but don’t understand power”)

1.
“I condemned the destruction of Alderaan. Then I saw the longer video in which Princess Leia says some pretty mean stuff to Grand Moff Tarkin. In this outrage culture, it’s just so easy to ignore the larger context, and I apologize.”

2.
“When we focus so much on the ‘wolfman’ terrorizing our village and eating our children, it implies that all men are wolves. We need to do a better job celebrating the men who aren’t werewolves, not just condemning the ones who are.”

3.
“Dolores Umbridge tortured students. That’s no excuse for disrespect.”

4.
“I don’t enjoy sending our children off to die in the hunger games. I think they’re ugly, violent spectacles. I just wonder, though, in our rush to make everything more ‘politically-correct,’ whether banning them would amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

5.
“I am part of the resistance inside Cthulhu’s transdimensional cabal of existence-eaters.”

6.
“While it’s certainly true that the phrase ‘there is no war in Ba Sing Se’ is propaganda meant to brainwash the populace into submission, one has to admit: it is peaceful here. Residents of Ba Sing Se aren’t constantly embroiled in debates about cultural appropriation or trigger warnings; it’s a place where things just work. The politics are moderate. The economy is roaring (at least for now). The strangers are helpful.”

7.
“The complete inability to see nuance, to put yourself in your rival’s shoes, to compromise: indeed, the people fighting the Nazgûl are the real Nazgûl.”

8.
“I don't agree with Thanos murdering half the universe. But does that merit harassing him in the street, calling him names, having people trying to steal his glove? Imagine this happening to someone you agree with and see how you feel.”

9.
“Who among us hasn’t, as an unruly youth, wiped out a village of sand people, or killed a few younglings while in the throes of teenage angst? Let boys be boys.”

10.
“Count Dracula may be a blood-drinking murderer, but when these liberal college students pressure their universities to not invite him to campus for paid speaking engagements, they’re committing a different sort of murder-- the murder of our first amendment rights.”

(if this post doesn't make a lot of sense, here. are. three. pieces with some background)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

How Much Profit is in Your Pain? On Masculinity and Outrage

a still image from the Gillette commercial of a line of men standing in front of BBQs

I finally watched the Gillette ad everyone is talking about. What's immediately striking to me is how basic it is-- and I don't mean that in a bad way. It's just a simple, straightforward affirmation that men can do better. Bullying is bad. Harassment is bad. Holding each other accountable is good. Cool.

As a post-#MeToo battlecry, it isn't exactly radical. But note how a certain subgroup of men respond:

"It's saying that all men are toxic and that's not fair!"

"It's PC SJW propaganda trying to emasculate men; we can't even be men anymore!"

"The feminist movement has gone TOO FAR and we need to organize a boycott!"

To reiterate: this was an ad for razors. It showed scenes like a dad breaking up a fight between two little boys, and a guy stopping his friend from shouting at a woman on the street. It featured Terry Crews saying "men need to hold other men accountable." Again, this isn't exactly burn-the-patriarchy-to-the-ground territory.

I'm also not convinced that the outrage directed at the ad is really representative of the population. Angry men are always loud on the internet, and counting YouTube likes and dislikes isn't exactly scientific. Whatever the specific numbers though, we know that these responses are out there in some capacity. We know that whenever there's a battle in the culture war (whether real or rumored), a certain subgroup of men are going to come out of the woodwork and form ranks. And yeah, their attitude is pretty emblematic of what people talk about when they talk about "toxic masculinity."

I don't love that term; not because it isn't accurate (it's super accurate), but because it's evolved into a distraction. We don't all have to constantly be in educator/outreach mode, but that is a mode that I often find myself in. When I work with boys and young men, we always talk about toxic masculinity, but we rarely use that specific phrase. Instead, we ask questions:

"Why do so many of us feel attacked when specific elements of masculinity get critiqued? Is it because we don't identify with those elements (#NotAllMen)... or because we do and would rather not think about it?"

"Why are so many of us so defensive in the first place? Why do we feel like we have to "win" the conversation rather than just listen and reflect?"

"Who benefits from this outrage? Who benefits from the bigger picture, this constant pressure on men to be tough, strong, in control, dominant, and aggressive? Is it us, or someone else?"

There are a million things we could talk about with regards to these questions, the Gillette ad, and masculinity (as a lot of my work explores)-- but for this piece, I want to focus on that last question. Because we can and should talk about what toxic masculinity is, the harm it can cause, and how we can move beyond it. But we don't always get a chance to explore why that's become the default script for men, the role to which we're supposed to aspire.


On the last Guante & Big Cats album, I wrote a song called "Dog People." The song looks at some of the qualities we project onto dogs (loyalty, unconditional love, obedience, etc.) and then explores how those qualities aren't always good things when applied to humans. That's framed by a larger question about anger: where does the anger that so many men feel come from? At whom do we aim it? Who benefits from it? The key verse:

I’ve seen anger like a loaded shotgun, a weapon 
Just pointed in the wrong direction 
Yeah we’re dog people: Chasing our own tails 
Look at who we blame when we fail: 
Scapegoats and bogeymen, always on the outside lookin’ in 
And mad about the taste of the soup that we’ve been cookin’ in 
but never mad at the cook, 
That man is a crook, who’s rich off the labor and the land that he took 
‘Cause look feminists didn’t close the factory 
that family on foodstamps didn’t eat your lunch 
Immigrants never offshored opportunity 
The pc police never shot anyone (so who’s your real enemy?) 
...and still we howl at that moon 
Whimper in a kennel hopin’ our master is back soon 
With that choke chain, shock collar love ‘til we break 
‘Til he’s trained us to hate everything that he hates, It’s a scam

That last line was important for me to include, because it points to something I've observed, doing this kind of critical masculinity work over the past decade: so much of male identity (especially white male identity) revolves around a profound fear of being taken advantage of. You see this in common political tropes: the mythical welfare queen, the undocumented immigrant, the affirmative action hire-- speechwriters and political commentators know that these tropes are powerful because they tap into that fear. "Those people think they can game the system, steal my hard-earned tax dollars, and get something I never got? That's not fair!"

The great irony, of course, is that men ARE being taken advantage of-- just not by feminists, immigrants, or any other culture war bogeyman.

We're scammed by advertisers that play off of our insecurities in order to sell us trucks, cologne, or beer. We're scammed by corporations that underpay us for our labor, or lay us off, while shareholders and CEOs accumulate grotesque amounts of wealth. We're scammed by politicians who promise that if we vote for them, they'll get rid of all the leeches and make our country great again, while rigging the tax system to benefit those already at the top. We're scammed by propagandists who tell us exactly what we want to hear, making growth/learning impossible. We're scammed by YouTubers and social media snake-oil salesman making controversial statements and then monetizing our clicks. We're scammed by a culture that says "if you work hard, you too can be a millionaire," while systematically eliminating opportunities and resources that can lead to financial security.

These are the people who benefit from men's outrage: the conmen, the corrupt, the rich. As long as men keep directing our anger at scapegoats like political correctness, feminism, or whatever SJWs-run-amok-of-the-day pops up on social media, we're not seeing the real villains of this story-- and those villains are very much aware of that fact.

"Dog People" ends, again, not with bold proclamations, but with questions:

How much profit is in your pain?
Who really benefits from your hate?

I don't think a significant amount of the men who are mad at the Gillette commercial read my blog. I'm more interested in these questions as tools for those of us who do education work. We know that values-based appeals are generally more effective than statistics or big "here's my powerpoint on toxic masculinity" presentations. Fairness, justice, a fear of being taken advantage of-- all of these are values that make that "certain subgroup of men" so resistant to critical thinking about toxic/violent/hegemonic masculinity. These same values, though, can be pivot points for growth.

How can we facilitate a shift? I don't think there's any one strategy, but I'm thinking about how outrage about a scholarship that is only open to women students can become outrage about student loan debt and the increasing inaccessibility of higher ed in general. Outrage about gendered conscription laws can be become outrage about militarism and imperialism. Outrage about a commercial addressing toxic masculinity can become outrage about a culture that has taught us that rage is the only emotion we're allowed to feel.

Of course, that reframing won't always work. Some men are just misogynists, or just want to argue for their "team" on the internet. Others, sometimes because of other identities they hold, already understand this power dynamic stuff and are ready to move into more radical places. But in my experience, the much larger group is made up of those in the middle, those men who maybe just haven't had this conversation yet, and are therefore open to toxic ideas about gender and dominance... but also open to other possibilities. We can't expect any corporation to do that work via cools ads, but I think the fact that this ad exists points to a culture that really is shifting in a positive direction. It's on us now-- especially those of us who are men-- to keep pushing.

RELATED:
A few other things I've written that pull together tools for anyone looking to cultivate more dialogue about these issues: