My Tedx Talk: “Five Things Art Taught Me About Activism” (featuring a new version of “Quicksand”)

Here it is. If you want a summary, the talk is basically about how the relationship between art and activism is so much deeper than just art that happens to be about activist stuff, that there’s a further connection in terms of process. The questions that artists ask themselves often mirror the questions that 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.

***Update (11/7/18): another poem, plus a consolidated list of activist resources, here***

My biggest worry is that the title of the talk might insinuate that it’s “for” artists or people who are already deeply engaged in activist work. And it’s not, really. This talk is for anyone who knows the world is messed up, and wants to do something about it. Just a few notes:

1. The talk opens with a revised version of my poem “Quicksand.” I’ve always liked that poem, but have also always worried that it’s too easy to misinterpret, to read it as a basic critique of slacktivism, or a call for action-for-action’s sake; for me, it’s something more nuanced. It’s my own fault as a writer that that isn’t more clear, but this talk gave me a chance to dig into the poem a little more.

2. The full text to that poem can be found here, and it’s also included in my book. As for the text of the full talk, I’m working on a highly-reimagined version of it for my new book, and the text/transcript is available via TED’s website.

3. The talk also plays off the zine that me and Liv Novotny made this past year; I’m currently working on a revised/updated version of that as well. Feel free to share!


Upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, waist-deep in quicksand, I need a second to process. After all, this is fiction made flesh; it’s like a cartoon, like going to the zoo and seeing a mermaid. So my first response, naturally, is to tell him:

Hey, um, I’m pretty sure that I read somewhere that quicksand isn’t actually dangerous, that this idea of a patch of sandy water sucking a person down into oblivion is just a tall tale, a trope to build tension in early 1960s westerns. In real life, yeah, I mean, you can get caught in some mud, but it’s not really that hard to get out. So are you sure you’re sinking in quicksand?

He sinks. My words don’t seem to have any effect. So being an open-minded, progressive individual, I reevaluate. Maybe quicksand is real. So what now?

My second response upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, chest deep in quicksand is, before I actually do anything, to make sure that I have the whole picture. I mean, what was this guy doing out here in the jungle all alone? Did he step into that quicksand on purpose? Was he asking for it? Does he have a criminal record? Maybe I should wait until all the facts come in.

He sinks. And again, being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. I want to help.

So my third response upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, neck deep in quicksand is, obviously, to recite a poem. To throw some positive energy his way. To describe, out loud, just how heavy my heart is. I take a piece of paper out of my backpack, and with a pen, I write “quicksand is bad and I am an ALLY to those who fall in it.” I pin that piece of paper to my chest. I take out my phone and I tweet “when are we going to wake up? #quicksand.”

He sinks. And being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide that this isn’t enough, that we, as a society, need to address the root causes of people sinking in quicksand. So my fourth response upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, forehead-deep in quicksand, is to take a moment to acknowledge my privilege as someone who is not sinking in quicksand. I vow to take a class, to be more mindful of how I navigate the world.

He sinks. And being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide that the time for words has passed; now is the time for action. So my fifth response upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, disappeared into quicksand, is… is…

We can’t allow ourselves to forget what happened here. I know that we need to do something, to put up a sign, to educate people, to build a bridge over this patch of quicksand. I just don’t have any wood. I just have this backpack full of paper and pens and rope; what can one person do?

I imagine my lungs filling with mud. Black earth. Brown water. The hike back to my hotel will be full of reflection. I offer my thoughts, and my prayers. It is the least I can do.