Once again, not a great year, in terms of the world. But I was able to be part of some cool stuff, and am endlessly grateful for everyone who helped make that possible. Here’s a quick recap (and you can find my other end-of-year recaps here) of some of the stuff of mine that people may have missed:
1. Button Poetry Re-Released My Book
Thanks again to everyone who has picked this up, read it, used it in classes, etc. Still blown away by the response. You can still get it here, and an audio version is on the way!
2. Guante & Big Cats: War Balloons
Proud of this album. Ever-grateful to Big Cats, Lydia Liza, and Tony the Scribe for helping to make it happen. If you missed it, I think it’s some of my best work. You can listen to the whole thing here, and consider buying it if you like it:
Oh and for people new to our music (since this is the first project we’ve released in years), here’s a retrospective mix featuring some of our best older songs too. You can also order a t-shirt featuring some cool designs juxtaposed with my lyrics.
3. New Poetry Videos
Some of these are brand new poems, written just this year; others are old favorites for which we captured some more polished footage. All of these performances are from my book’s release show, a sold out night at Icehouse in Minneapolis; thank you to everyone who came through.
4. New Zine: “How Do We Build a Culture of Consent?”
This little booklet comes from asking that question in spaces all over the country (which is part of what I do for a living) and listening to the responses of advocates, survivors, activists, and educators.
5. An Ongoing Writing Project: Deep Dives into Individual Poems
The idea behind this project was to have an archive not just of spoken word poems, but of analysis and commentary that might be useful to aspiring/emerging poets. There just don’t seem to be an over-abundance of spaces to “talk shop” with regards to spoken word specifically, especially for people who may not have access to workshops and classes. I did some of these through Button, and some just on my own as a “Poem of the Month” feature, and the link is now full of fantastic poems, plus some thoughts on technique related to each one.
6. Other Writing
A few other things I wrote or where part of writing this year:
“Where I’m from is where I’m from and not where I was put.”
I’m highlighting some older poems that are personal favorites of mine (although this particular entry was a suggestion from poet Fatima Camara– thanks!); it’s a way to shout out some good work, and also to analyze some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers. Find the full list here.
We could talk about how this poem is actually a series of poems, performed back-to-back without breaks. But whether we hear this as a series, or as one poem that features multiple movements, I think the more important thing is the overall effect.
As a poet, you can show up and just read your ten best poems, sure; or you can be intentional with how you put those poems into conversation with one another. You can structure how you want your 15 minutes (or 5, or 30, or whatever) to move, to flow, to breathe. You can juxtapose ideas and techniques so that the set as a whole becomes even more powerful than the sum of its parts. This process is an integral part of writing a book, but can definitely apply to live performance too.
It’s maybe worth pausing for a second to ask whether hearing an entire set, with none of the witty banter or joking between the poems that are so common in spoken word spaces, is jarring. A followup could be whether that “jarring” is constructive or distracting. I think a lot of us would probably agree that with this poem, it’s constructive– it gives the poem(s) a tension and energy that undergirds the emotions and ideas being grappled with.
In general, and at the risk of saying something super obvious, I think banter-between-poems is good when it’s good and bad when it’s bad. Sometimes, pausing between poems to talk can frame or contextualize poems in a powerful way. Sometimes it can cultivate intimacy with the audience. Sometimes it can give the audience a moment to breathe, and give a set a kind of rhythm that draws focus to the poems. Other times, of course, it can be super annoying.
I think this video shows the power of letting the poetry speak for itself, of breaking outside the mold of what a spoken word set is supposed to look/sound like, and of subverting the audience’s expectations. There are a million other things to explore regarding the fantastic line-by-line writing on display here, not to mention the actual substance/ideas the poem(s) explores– but I’ll leave it there for now. Feel free to add more thoughts in the comments.
Find more from Safia Elhillo (including booking info, social media links, and more) here.
“From the stage, you can’t see the hyenas; but you can hear them barking. Your job is to be meat dangling, to tease out the barking…”
I’m highlighting some older poems that are personal favorites of mine; it’s a way to shout out some good work, and also to analyze some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers. Find the full list here.
There are two things on my mind right now. First, this poem has been a favorite of mine for years, and it’s always fun to share great poems with people. Second, I get a lot of messages from poets asking for feedback on their work, and I think this poem kind of crystallizes at least some of the feedback I end up giving to 99% of people. And with Button Poetry’s chapbook contest now open, I wanted to share a couple of observations that might be useful to aspiring/emerging poets out there. To be clear, these aren’t rules, or some kind of step-by-step guide to writing good poetry; these are just things that I notice in THIS poem that I carry with me into my own writing.
1. The very first line of this poem is an image. It’s not a “here’s what I think” statement or some abstract, philosophical pondering about the universe. It’s “there’s a dark club, full of hyenas, barking at an empty stage.” You can see it. You can hear it. You can smell it. Right away. And look: a poem doesn’t have to start with an image; that’s not a rule. But for me, as a reader/listener, it’s one of the most basic things a writer can do to capture my attention. It’s also one of the most basic things that a whole lot of aspiring poets don’t do.
2. The poem is made up of stories. There’s some really powerful connective tissue in the poem, but the “bones” of the poem (as I see it) are small stories, anecdotes, moments, and memories. Again, there’s no rule that says that “good” poetry has to have a narrative element– it doesn’t. But stories are powerful. Both in terms of grabbing the audience’s attention and communicating something deep via images. Some poems are built around one story; this one uses a bunch of little stories to paint an impressionistic picture of the deeper truth the poem is trying to point toward.
3. The poem is emotional and personal without being strictly autobiographical. I want to be careful here: I’m not saying that autobiographical or confessional poetry is bad– it has the potential to be just as good or bad as any other kind of poetry. I’m just excited by poems that can be this honest, and create this kind of emotional energy, via other avenues; I think that’s a useful tool/approach, especially for those of us who maybe don’t want to write directly and explicitly about our real-life trauma. To use myself as an example, I’ve often said that this is my most personal poem, even though it’s obviously not a true story. I think part of poetry is being able to make connections, to juxtapose stories and create dialogue between the personal, the universal, and the space in between.
4. On a delivery level, it’s straightforward without being dull, and theatrical without being T H E A T R I C A L. Of course, other listeners can disagree with me, but I love how this poem is performed. Spoken word’s connection to theater sometimes manifests as pure leave-it-all-on-the-stage volume, or melodrama (both of which I’ve been guilty of). But there are moments in this performance that are just chilling; the conversational/understated delivery really propels a deep emotional intensity. I know this point may be less relevant to people preparing their manuscripts, but it’s maybe worth thinking about how that dynamic lives in our writing too, and not just in performance.
5. This poem has a strong hook. I’ve written about hooks before, but the basic idea, for me, is that the hook is the concept, the organizing principle of the poem. It’s what makes a poem stand out– whether that means stand out from all poems in general, or stand out from poems that tackle the same subject matter. This poem has a laser-specific topic and knows what it wants to say about that topic. There aren’t a dozen other poems about the same thing that I can pull up on YouTube right now. A strong hook doesn’t necessarily make a poem good, but it very often makes it more memorable.
6. Finally, I think one of the functions of poetry is to recontextualize, especially things we think we already understand, and this poem is a devastating example of that. The stories about famous comedians aren’t just random factoids; they build upon each other, supporting the thesis of the poem indirectly, until that thesis is made explicit in the famous (well, famous in the circles I run in, haha) line playing with the word “spite.” The poem has levels too: even if it were just literally about the idea that comedians sometimes pull their material from dark places/experiences, it’d be powerful; but I’d argue that it taps into something more universal about the nature of the relationship between spite and survival, something so many artists– and hell, non-artists too– can relate to.
So again, just a few things I notice in this poem; I hope they can be useful to any of you prepping chapbook submissions.
“Ours is not a love song sprouted from redemption, hope, or even longing… but it is a love song. Sing it under your breath. Sharpen it, every morning.”
This is an older poem of mine (it’s available along with many others in my book); those of you who know my work may know: it’s gone through three different titles. I like this one the best; I also like this footage/performance better than older ones.
It’s a love poem, and yeah it’s kind of a weird love poem, but it’s a poem that’s always meant a lot to me. I think love poems are great opportunities to dig into some of the nuances of our emotions; there’s longing and romance in this poem, but there’s also fatalism and cynicism; those impulses exist at the same time.
Not to get too word-nerdy, but I also love the word “undeath.” I think it communicates something powerful not just about vampires and zombies, but about in-between spaces, about states of being that move over borders and transcend easy, black-and-white dichotomies.
I hope you like it; please feel free to share. Here’s the transcript; I share it here for accessibility’s sake, but of course, if you like, please consider getting my book.
1. PRESSURE ON THE WOUND It’s so easy to say that voting is “just a band aid.”
A better metaphor is that voting is “pressure on the wound.”
That pressure won’t mend the wound by itself, but it will buy time. It is one small, but necessary, step in a larger healing process.
2. VOTING IS ABOUT POLICY, BUT IT IS ALSO ABOUT CULTURE The single biggest reason that I vote in every election is that the people I know, in real life, who are actively engaged in doing the work of organizing, activism, and building a better world every single day (from immigrant rights activists, to advocates for trans rights, to union organizers, to teachers, to racial justice educators, to survivor support providers, and beyond)– they all tell me that it matters.
They tell me that voting won’t save us, but also say that no single strategy can “save” us anyway, so we may as well use every tool we have access to.
Another thing that I’ve learned from the everyday organizers I’ve had contact with is something kind of nuanced. It’s the idea that we obviously can’t just fight for symbolic victories, but that the symbolic side of concrete victories really does matter. It’s not an either/or thing. Symbols matter because culture matters.
To that point, these kinds of get-out-the-vote posts are often supposed to be “non-partisan.” But nothing ever is. We can say that “both sides” run annoying TV ads, sure, but “both sides” are not engaging in Islamophobia, anti-immigrant fear-mongering, rampant misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, concerted efforts to disenfranchise voters, or dark money-driven disinformation campaigns.
That stuff is ugly, and violent, and will hurt people. We don’t have to love one candidate to want to defeat the other. We don’t have to love one party to understand the necessity of pushing back, forcefully, against the kind of creeping, straight-up fascism that those impulses represent. 3. EXISTENTIAL THREAT This past week, we got word that the world was ending, again. The responses to that, as always, are understandable, if a little predictable: doomsaying (“we’re so screwed!”), calls for more individual responsibility divorced from a larger-scale policy context (“buy a hybrid car!”), and detached acceptance (“I know I should care about this, but it’s just too big!”)
When people say that voting is not the most powerful way to build power and shift policy, they’re right. Real change is driven by mass movements– people organizing, engaging in direct action, and leveraging their power to force the issue. Climate change, though, is a great example of one of the issues for which voting really does matter. Because the issue is so big, and so time-sensitive, getting the right people in office can be a force-multiplier for that movement work.
The argument isn’t “do nothing but vote for Democrats because they’ll save us.” The argument is “build mass movements, and then ALSO vote for candidates who are more susceptible to pressure from those mass movements.”
This relates to other issues too. Voting doesn’t “fix” anything– it helps create the conditions under which more offensive, forward-thinking movement work can happen. The myth is that progressive activism gets “stronger” when bad people are in power; I think the opposite is true. When we can organize offensively rather than defensively, we can really shift both policy and culture.
4. FOR THE “I DON’T REALLY FOLLOW POLITICS” CROWD: I get that. Life is hectic. But with everything going on in this country right now, it’s a perfect time to get in the loop. And it doesn’t have to be that much of a struggle; area publications may have voter guides; even a quick google search for “your city/state + elections” or “your city/state + voter guide” can turn things up.
To use Minnesota as an example, here are a few links that have been useful to me over the years. That isn’t to say that I agree 100% with everything here; just that these links help me get a “snapshot” of what’s going on every election cycle. And if you’re not in MN, the odds are good that there are similar links/resources where you are.
A good first step is to find a sample ballot so you know what’s going to be on there. I found mine here.
Some of the basic info about eligibility, registration, how to vote, etc.
BallotReady.org lets you kind of walk through the process, and includes a bunch of candidate info for people still doing research. Hat-tip to Pollen.
I think another big voter guide is on the way; will be sure to update this post when it drops.
5. FOR THE “BUT I’M JUST ONE PERSON; MY VOTE DOESN’T MATTER” CROWD Sure. But while that can be a disempowering reason to not vote, it can also be an empowering reason to do more than just vote. During elections, voting is the baseline; we can do more: we can mobilize our people: family, friends, networks, etc. Get ten people to vote. Share this post. Share candidate info on social media. Volunteer for a campaign. Donate to a good candidate. “Being involved” is so much more than just showing up to cast a ballot (although that definitely does indeed matter).
For example, I’m just one person and can only provide one vote. I can, however, also spread the word about some of the down-ballot candidates that people may not know about. Obviously, the governor’s race, the two Senate races (here and here), and other big state-wide races are important (and if history is any indication, we should NOT take them for granted; polls may show Walz and Smith ahead, but both are vulnerable, and regressive nightmare Wardlow has just pulled ahead of Ellison in the AG race); but there are also important local races this year:
Sheriff: my county is super progressive (relative to other counties), but we keep electing this ICE-collaborator and Trump supporter Stanek as sheriff. This year, Dave Hutchinson is also running, and is definitely worth checking out.
For County Commissioner, depending on what district you’re in, Angela Conley (district 4) and Irene Fernando (district 2) are both running. Those links go to their respective endorsement pages, which is one of things I look at first when considering candidates. There’s another district race (3: Greene/Redmond) too; an update on that one here.
County Attorney is a position with a lot of power, and swapping out Mike Freeman for Mark Haase can make a real difference. Check out his list of endorsements at that link, plus here’s a big story on him over at Pollen.
If everyone who reads this also checks out those races and spreads the word about them, it can have a real effect. To be even more specific, I know that I have friends who are excited about the opportunity to vote for Ilhan Omar this year (I am too). An easy “ask” is to say “hey you’re already going to be voting, so I hope you know about these other races too.”
6. IF YOU DON’T CARE WHAT I SAY, READ THIS INSTEAD: Mariame Kaba (aka @prisonculture on Twitter) is one of the most consistently smart, principled, and practical voices on the internet when it comes to movement-building. This thread, in particular, is something I wish everyone would take a moment to read:
Just a word before shutting it down for the night… I think a lot about the fact that people spend a lot of time lamenting injustice and much much less time getting actively engaged to confront and challenge it.
I understand why this is. Folks are often busy trying to simply survive. Sometimes it’s that people feel paralyzed because the problems seem so entrenched and so big. Sometimes it’s because folks just prefer lamenting instead of taking action.
In the next few days and weeks, we’re going to be inundated with calls to VOTE. And there will be a parallel track of people yelling about voting not being enough. Both groups will have their own good reasons for positing these points of view.
Here’s what I’ll be doing over the next few days and weeks. I’ll of course vote. I always do. I don’t make a big deal of it. I do it not out of any civic duty. I do it because it’s a tactic that can make some difference at the margins and I believe in using all viable tactics.
I’ll be doubling down on local organizing and continue to build with comrades (new and old). I’ll be focused like a laser on trying to free more people from cages. I’ll be producing more tools to be used for political education to help move towards an abolitionist horizon.
I’ll be continuing to donate funds to projects and groups I think are doing positive work and I’ll continue to fundraise for those groups. I’ll be engaging in conversations with people in different parts of the country to strategize how we build more power.
I’ll be reading books and articles that provide me with mental nourishment and challenge me to be a better and more critical thinker. I’ll be encouraging my friends and family to do their own work to contribute to more justice.
I’ve taken the time to enumerate these things because they are actually unspectacular and mundane actions that anyone can take. They are things that are within our control to do. They are things that if we do them at a large scale every single day will help shift our trajectory.
I get that today has been incredibly tough for many people for many reasons. I understand and more than this I empathize. I want to suggest though that you are needed more than ever. That it is as important as it’s ever been to ACT with purpose and justice.
Those of us who want more justice and some peace in the world are not alone. We aren’t. All around us there are people who want the same things. All around us there are people working towards both. Actively so. Join us if you’re not already in the arena. Join us.
A big part of the work that I do is traveling to colleges and high schools to talk about consent and gender violence prevention. For me, though, that conversation can’t just be about prevention on an individual, “being a better person” level. Of course, that’s an important part of it. But when we talk about sexual assault, we’re not just talking about individual perpetrators, individual survivors, and individual bystanders– we’re talking about a culture. How do we shift culture?
An activity that we often do is to put up three big sheets of paper, and ask the question: HOW DO WE BUILD A CULTURE OF CONSENT? One sheet is for things we can do as individuals, on our own. One is for things we can do in community, with our friends, family, and peers. One is for things we can do to shift policy in a larger-scale, sustainable way. You may recognize this framework from my other zine.
The idea is that the activity becomes a visualization of action ideas– it’s big, messy, and includes steps that experienced organizers can take right next to steps that someone who is having this conversation for the very first time can take. It shows that we have agency. We have power.
For this new zine, I wanted to share some of the results of this activity, some of the action ideas that thousands of students, survivors, advocates, and organizers across the country shared. It’s short, of course, but can hopefully spark some conversations, and some action. Please feel free to share, or even to download and print/fold some zines yourself (here are cutting/folding directions). Full text here:
What Is Consent?
“Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.” (Project Respect)
“[Affirmative consent is]” “Informed, freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity that is expressed by clear and unambiguous words or actions.” (The Aurora Center)
“The idea of enthusiastic consent is quite simple. In a nutshell, it advocates for enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement.” (Persephone Magazine)
Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re both naked in bed.
Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.
Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.
Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex).
Practicing consent is vital, but ending sexual assault will take more than our just being better individuals. So how do we BUILD a culture of consent? This document shares a few ideas pulled from conversations with advocates, activists, students, and survivors around the US:
As Individuals, We Can Level Up
Learn more about these issues via books (check out the last section below for some recommendations), articles, podcasts, classes, and more.
Especially for men:“unlearning” some of what we’re taught about masculinity and sex can be necessary.
Get plugged in: do a quick online search to find local and/or national organizations (or individuals) doing work to support survivors and end rape culture, and join their email lists, follow them on social media, or attend their events. I list a few examples in the “resources” section below.
Practice consent in your relationships: Be present. Communicate, listen, and ask questions. This video has more.
It isn’t just about sex; practice consent in other areas of your life too: ask before giving someone a hug, taking their picture, etc. Let children know that they can always say “no” to tickling, kisses, etc.
Understand consent beyond the “dominant narrative.” Consent matters in same-sex relationships, for people outside the gender binary, and beyond. While most perpetrators of sexual assault are men, men can also be victim/survivors.
Believe survivors. Listen to survivors. Center survivors.
In Community, We Can Step Up
Dialogue. Join a book club or discussion circle where people can meet up, share their experiences, and build community with one another. If you’re a student, take classes that explore these issues.
Speak out. Post links to good articles or videos on social media. Write blog posts and letters-to-the-editor.
Challenge the myths. From the prevalence of false accusations, to the idea that “boys will be boys,” to all kinds of victim-blaming nonsense: learn to spot these myths, and how to dismantle them.
Especially for men: bring these conversations into spaces where they aren’t already happening. Refuse to laugh at sexist or violent jokes. Call people out. Support survivors. Don’t just “be” a good guy, put your values and principles into action.
Support survivors. For a great list of “dos” and “don’ts,” check out “Supporting a Survivor: The Basics” at www.knowyourix.org.
Create art. Broadcast. Plant seeds. Whatever platform you have access to, no one else has that same access. For example, here’s a list of poems about consent and healthy sexuality.
Remember that it’s not just about perpetrators and victims. We can all disrupt harmful– or potentially harmful– situations. Whether you’re at a party and you witness someone trying to take advantage of someone else, or you’re on the bus and someone is being harassed, or you’re just on the internet and someone is saying harmful things, the classic “bystander intervention” approach highlights three tactics:
Disrupt: Sometimes, the best move is just to step up, be direct, and call people out.
Distract: If you feel like the direct approach might not work, you can still disrupt the situation in a more indirect way– starting a conversation about something unrelated, spilling a drink on someone, etc.
Delegate: If your safety is an issue, or you just don’t feel equipped to do one of the first two points, another option is to get help– find friends or allies who can back you up, or take over themselves. Sometimes, this can involve going to authorities, but remember that not everyone feels–or is– safer when police are involved. Center the person in need.
On that last note, I’d also recommend this video, and this article, which both acknowledge the power of the bystander intervention approach while sharing some necessary critiques; a quote from the latter:
Maybe bystander intervention can be radically re-imagined, not as momentary interference in “isolated” instances of violence but as a consistent, collective effort at victim-centered justice, accountability, and support, one that extends long before and long after any particular “incident” of violence.
Show up. Find organizations doing work to support survivors and cultivate a culture of consent, and support them via donations, signal-boosting, volunteering, organizing fundraiser events, or joining them– you can become an advocate too. Of course, not everyone can “show up” in the same ways. That’s okay. No single individual has to do every thing here. But we can all do something.
Vote for candidates who share your values on these issues. Advocate for them. Volunteer for their campaigns. Get better people into positions of power. Voting alone won’t solve this problem, but it can help set the stage for future work.
If you’re a student, meet up with your advisor to find some classes that might put you on a career path to do this work for a living.
Make sure your business, school, organization, or other institution has effective protocols in place for holding those who commit sexual harassment or assault accountable.
Organize! Here are some specific policies that people around the country have fought for and won:
Campus affirmative consent policies.
K-12 consent education.
Comprehensive sexual education in schools.
More engaging, more critical, more effective consent ed content in first-year orientation programs.
Funding for survivor advocacy organizations and/or student groups that work on these issues.
Resources for holding perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault accountable outside of the criminal justice system, like community-centered transformative justice practices.
A FEW RESOURCES: A few organizations (among many):
“Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape” (Friedman and Valenti)
“Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” (ed. Gay)
“Ask: Building Consent Culture” (ed. Stryker)
“Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement” (ed. Patterson)
“The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses” (Documentary and Book)
“The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” (Deer)
“Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It” (Harding)
“Not On My Watch: A Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence” (Rotman)
“Know My Name” (Miller)
Obviously, there are many more. With the format I’m using for this, space is limited. On here, however, I’d also point people to this list of poems (plus links/readings) dealing with these issues that may be useful as conversation starters or teaching tools. Feel free to add more in the comments.
“Vote. Because this system should serve more than those who clutch dead ideals and documents drenched in dust; it should serve us”
I’m highlighting some older poems that are personal favorites of mine; it’s a way to shout out some good work, and also to analyze some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers. Find the full list here.
2. Second, this is a poem about the importance of voting. I write something about voting pretty much every year, and have a post coming with more thoughts and resources related to that. For now, though, I think this poem is a great reminder for those of us (especially those of us who CAN vote) who aren’t already plugged in to plug the hell in. Schedule time to do it. Ask questions and gather resources if you need to. Find local organizations like TakeAction MN and dive in, volunteer for campaigns, have a plan.
In the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation, people are hurting, and angry, and sad. That’s all valid. Voting absolutely isn’t the only thing we can do. But it is one concrete action that can contribute to the larger movement-building work that needs to happen. Again, I’ll be sharing more links and resources later this month. Oh also note, that this video is from 2014, and election day THIS year is not 11/4– it’s 11/6.
3. Finally, on a form level, this is a great poem to analyze in the context of the question: how do we effectively construct calls-to-action in poems? I just had a great workshop/conversation with some poets over at Macalester College where we discussed this, and it’s a question that I am personally invested in asking wherever I go, especially when working with other poets. It is skill to be able to write a poem that isn’t just “right” or “compelling” about whatever topic it’s exploring, but has some kind of concrete action to share with its audience. It’s hard to do well. It’s easy to be corny, or preachy, or just not very interesting.
I think this poem succeeds for a few reasons:
The poem knows what it is. I get a very clear sense of who Tish is and what she values, as well as who the target audience of the poem is.
On a craft level, there’s a lot of attention paid to sonic elements like assonance, alliteration, repetition and rhyme. It works as a poem first. Especially with the first point here in mind, it’s engaging in terms of how it flows and choices made around sound.
It’s short. Brevity matters in general, but especially for this kind of poem, it can’t drag on for five minutes. Make it punchy. Make your point and bounce.
The poem uses juxtaposition in a subtle but powerful way– large and small, ancestors and future generations, the powers-that-be and the power we have access to– all of these frameworks and set up in an intentional way that flows into the larger statement that the poem is making.
On a content level, the poem isn’t parroting the old “vote because it’s your civic DUTY” line; it’s saying something more specific, and more meaningful. It’s connecting the listener– especially the listener who may not come from a privileged place in society– to a history of struggle, not to mention a *present* in which far too many people have had their rights stripped away. That connection drives the call-to-action. The poem does a lot of work in just a minute-and-a-half.
One of the central questions we ask in these conversations about anthems and calls-to-action is about whether the poem that wins a poetry slam, or goes viral on the internet, can also be performed at a rally. Or a fundraiser. Or an improvised protest. The answer is very often no, because those kinds of poems require an approach that we don’t always learn– whether we come from the MFA world or the slam poetry world. It is possible to write those poems, though, as Tish demonstrates here. It is also necessary, especially in this historical moment.
Find more from Tish Jones (and book her for your college, conference, etc.) here.
“We aren’t teaching our boys to be men; we are teaching them not to be women. And what does that say about women?” 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.
First, I know this is an older poem from Donte, and they have a whole book of newer poems, as well as dozens of videos online. I also know that as poets, we don’t always love drawing attention to our older work, but I wanted to highlight this poem for a couple of reasons.
First, even if Donte has grown as a writer and performer since this poem, this poem still has so much to offer. Using the Happy Meal toy imagery as a very small, concrete entry-point to a much deeper exploration of how we’re socialized to internalize the gender binary is powerful. Moving from that into Disney princess imagery, into middle school bullying and sports imagery– the poem is a waterfall of examples that support the poem’s message. I’ve talked a lot about structure in this series, and this poem demonstrates the idea of a structural impulse– not a strict, formulaic set of rules, but rather an intentionality around how an argument is constructed– beautifully.
I know educators often use my poems (like this one and this one) in conversations about how masculine identities are formed and enforced, and how that so often connects to violence; I hope that Donte’s poem (as well as others from this list I put together) can be added to the arsenal for those discussions. Because poems like these weave together personal narrative and concrete examples, they can be useful entry-points, something beyond a basic powerpoint presentation or whatever.
I also share this poem, however, because this video was taken at one of TruArtSpeaks‘ Be Heard poetry slams, and I wanted to give a shout out to TruArtSpeaks and how important that work is in the current climate. We’re actually right in the middle of a campaign to raise $10k before October 15; ALL of that money goes directly into programming that ensures young people have opportunities to not only tell their stories and express themselves, but also to access high-quality mentorship and arts-educational opportunities. We run a free, all-ages open mic every week (Thursdays, 6-8pm at Golden Thyme Cafe), engage in dozens of school residencies every year, host all kinds of workshops and writing circles, organize the Be Heard series (every January-March), and more.