New Video for “Starfish” + What a Week in My Life Looks Like


NEW VIDEO for an older poem of mine, courtesy of Button Poetry. Here’s the commentary I posted on it, plus the text at the bottom of this post:

This is a poem I wrote about the tension that can sometimes exist between doing face-to-face activist/educational/service work that you know is good and that you know has an impact… while not seeing the larger systems/trends change.

As much as we might know on an intellectual level that we need BOTH (for example: we need people who volunteer at the homeless shelter AND people who organize around pushing policies that can end homelessness), it can be a challenge to figure how you fit in, where you should expend your energy. This poem is a reminder for me to continue developing more nuanced frameworks for how I think about change, to value and honor individual contributions while never losing sight of the larger goals of sustainable, institutional transformation.

In that spirit, aside from posting the new video, I thought I’d use this post to kind of walk through my week up to when the video went up. Part of being a multidisciplinary artist/person is that a lot of people don’t seem to really understand what it is that I actually do. So what follows is a pretty standard slice of what my life looks like these days, for anyone who might care.

My life is an endless series of whiteboards.
Wednesday 3/4: I teach a class at the U of MN on intersections of hip hop, spoken-word and youth work philosophy. It’s more a space for all of us in the class to build with each other, share thoughts, and strategies, etc. At this session, we listened to Heems’ “Flag Shopping” and did a guided critical analysis, focusing on form, content, delivery and context. We then analyzed the analysis exercise, pointing out what practices and techniques were used.

Thursday 3/5: In the afternoon, I stopped by Hamline University to guest lecture in a “diversity and education” class. I shared a couple of my poems, did more critical analysis stuff, and then we had a discussion making connections between what those students are studying and the issues and themes that come up in my work. After that, I drove to Golden Thyme Cafe in St. Paul to facilitate a youth spoken-word workshop, focusing on odes. After that, I hosted the weekly Re-Verb open mic. We had about 15 poets share their work, and the cool thing about that space is that we also engage in some workshopping and constructive feedback.
 
photo by Hieu Nguyen

Friday 3/6: This was the first semifinal bout in the 2015 Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam series, organized by TruArtSpeaks. It was at Intermedia Arts in MPLS, and I had the honor of co-hosting alongside up-and-coming MC (and former Be Heard participant) Lucien Parker. It was one of the best poetry slams I’ve ever witnessed. Completely sold out (including a packed overflow room where people watched the slam on a live feed), incredible energy the whole night, and some really powerful, beautifully-crafted poetry. By the way, FINALS are coming up Saturday, 3/28 at the Capri Theater in MPLS, 6pm. Everyone should be there.

Saturday 3/7: I co-keynoted (along with Jessica Valenti) the annual Building Bridges conference at Gustavus Adolphus College. The conference, which has an annual attendance of about 900, has a different theme every year, and this year’s was disrupting and dismantling rape culture. I did an hour-long keynote that included some poems as well as some speechifying, and then did a combined Q&A with Jessica Valenti.
 
Sunday 3/8: Homework, grocery shopping, real-life stuff. Might have played some Hearthstone.
 
Monday 3/9: I’m a grad student, and I have my Arts and Cultural Leadership class on Mondays with Tom Borrup. We’ve had guest presentations from Fres Thao, DeAnna Cummings, and others. Learning a lot.
 
I like to leave important notes in my books.

Tuesday 3/10: This afternoon, I got to go to Northdale Middle School in Coon Rapids to do a presentation for teachers and staff on identity and positionality in terms of student-teacher relationships. With just two hours, it was more of an introduction to some intersectionality stuff, but we also got to dig a little deeper and have a robust discussion. After that, I drove straight to campus to catch the last hour of my Critical Pedagogy class at the U. Reading Patti Lather’s “Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/In the Postmodern” right now.

Wednesday 3/11: Writing. I’m not the most disciplined writer in the world, but I try to find days to set aside to work on new songs, new poems, etc. It happened to work out this week.
 
Thursday 3/12: I traveled to UW-Madison for the Multicultural Student Center’s annual Symposium on Race. I facilitated a workshop on how spoken-word can be a useful tool for illuminating narratives that are so often erased by mainstream discourse, and then did an interactive performance later in the evening, focusing on the relationship between knowing and doing, between theory and action, between acknowledging privilege and concretely shifting practice, especially with regards to race and racism. Bringing us full circle, this is also the day the new video dropped, and since I am also my own publicist/manager/agent, I had to use my phone to manage the poem’s journey through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.So yeah, that’s a peek into my life. It was a busy week, but not necessarily more or less busy than any other week. Some weeks are more music-focused, with rap shows, rehearsals, and studio time, and other weeks are more like this one. I am very grateful for all of the people who make my being able to do all this possible. Lots more to come.

STARFISH (text)

I am standing in a school, or a submarine. Everything is grey and the walls can almost kiss each other. Children avalanche around my legs, flowing into one another, their faces erased by their sheer numbers. It is too dark here. And my job, these days, is to turn all the lights on and pretend to be brave.

We smell like unused paintbrushes; the air is still, hanging just over this river of hands and shoes and teeth. I see a teacher in a window, a smiley face painted onto a crash-test dummy. I forget where I am going.

These children will grow up to be scarecrows. These children will snarl, once, at the world and be put down. They will grow into the poems written about them, live in the spaces between the letters, and shiver when the books open. And my job, these days, is to melt the winter with a flashlight. 

I work in after-school program purgatory, moving from school to school, siphoning tears and collecting poems. I keep the poems in a shiny leather briefcase. I dump the tears out in the parking lot. And my job, these days, is to identify bodies. My job, these days, is to be the Disney World full-body suit Sisyphus. My job, these days, is to dream of starfish: tens of thousands smothered by the air on the beach, being pulled apart alive by the seagulls. I toss a few back into the ocean and people tell me that I’m making a difference.  

But there is no honor in triage, only necessity. And these children need something more, something bigger than one more plucky white woman to pry them open and extract their genius, or one more well-meaning liberal college kid trying to “save” them, or one more Positive Male Role Model teaching them how to write poetry.  And my job these days is to be one more positive male role model teaching them how to write poetry, and it’s killing me.

A teacher once told me that this is the curse of direct service—we make a difference, just not enough of one. We are the bricks in a haunted house, doing an admirable job keeping the ceiling from collapsing, but not able to remove the evil from the air. And my job, these days, is to be a hack exorcist. My job, these days, is to be a superhero in a coma, a stripmall Santa Claus. My job, these days, is to feel my way through the jagged corners of these schools and not bleed too much.

And suddenly I remember where I’m going: the guidance counselor, who is concerned that one of my students may be “unstable” because she wrote a poem about her pain, not knowing that pain is pretty much all that 15 year-olds write about. On my way to the office, an impossibly small boy from one of my sessions cannonballs through the crowd, hits me in the shoulder and says… thank you. His name is Brian. He says thank you, and means it, and I’m stuck. 

Somewhere between you’re welcome and I’m sorry. I’m stuck staring at banners: Attitude is Everything, No Child Left Behind, I Love My School. I’m stuck. And my job, these days, is not to “make a difference;” it is to fight, with everything I have, for a world in which I don’t have to. My job, these days, is to try to find a way to be both brick and builder, to teach starfish to fly.