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.

With the help of some partners, we got this zine into the hands of thousands of people this year. Lots of concrete action ideas and resources for further study; read the whole thing online and/or download a PDF of the zine version.

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:

Thanks!

“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.

More:

  • Find more from Safia Elhillo (including booking info, social media links, and more) here.
  • My full list of poem commentary/essays here.