New Poem: Tension & Release (via Button Poetry)

How small a seed it takes to birth a forest. How small a spark it takes to burn down an empire.

If I’m being honest, this is maybe my favorite poem of mine, or at least one that means a lot to me. I’m very grateful that Button was able to capture this footage and chose to share it. A few quick notes:

  • I wrote this during the pandemic, parallel to writing my new book. It’s not actually in the new book, though, since that book takes place on another world and this poem is full of very Earth-centric references. But both this poem and that book explore the idea of what hope can mean, and what it can look like, amidst great crisis, grief, and uncertainty. So if you like the poem, you might like the book too.
  • I also want to be clear that, to me at least, this is a poem about finding those moments when we can choose to step up, to show up, to act. I realize that it will likely be interpreted to be more about mental health, and I worry that a line like “it only takes one moment to choose to fight” might hit differently depending on how people are hearing the poem. Of course, everyone is free to interpret how they need to; I’m just saying that for me, the poem is less about dealing with depression in a mental health sense, and more about dealing with cynicism in a political sense.
  • The poem is built from not just some of my favorite songs, but my favorite individual moments in songs. Obviously, there’s a deeper metaphor at work here, and the poem isn’t actually *about* the songs. But compiling those moments was really fun; my favorite moments aren’t always from my favorite artists, and my favorite artists don’t all show up in this poem. I would recommend it as a playlist-building exercise for anyone. It forced me to really identify those rare moments when a song “turns,” or where an already-great song becomes something truly transcendent.
  • Speaking of playlists, I made one for this poem here, especially for anyone who isn’t super familiar with the songs I chose. Bear in mind, however, that the timestamps in the poem might not be perfectly accurate, since different versions of songs (especially with videos) might have additional content that changes when the moments happen. But they should be close, at least.

Thanks so much for watching and sharing. I’d love to keep adding to this list, by the way. So if you have a favorite moment from a song, please feel free to share with me, whether on Twitter or IG or whatever.

Here’s the text. The video is for an earlier draft of this piece; since then, I’ve added to it. Probably not necessary additions on a poetry level, haha, but just some extra shout outs that I wanted to include:

~~~

TENSION AND RELEASE

One minute and 42 seconds into Springsteen’s Thunder Road, when the whole song opens up exactly as though you had just… rolled down the window, to let the wind blow back your hair. 24 seconds into Yoko Kanno’s Tank! and how could we not jam? The dance choreographed to Nina Simone’s Lilac Wine, about 38 minutes and 58 seconds into the Netflix version of Beyonce’s Homecoming. Four minutes and 27 seconds into Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me, when Bushwick Bill says… I’m not going to tell you what he says! You have to listen to the song. Five minutes and six seconds into Donny Hathaway’s A Song for You. 18 seconds into Fortunate Son by CCR. 10 seconds into Lost Ones by Lauryn Hill.

I don’t believe in magic, or miracles, or destiny. Just tension and release. 

In 9th Wonder by Digable Planets, Ladybug Mecca comes in at 3:11 with… “Now you see that I’m 68 inches above sea level/ 93 million miles above these devils,” …and that rhyme, like it was meant to be, like it couldn’t be any other way, answers a question I never knew I was asking. Four minutes into Radiohead’s Let Down, the lead vocal pulls itself apart, like the splitting of a cell, like the splitting of an atom. Like 44 seconds into Think by Aretha Franklin, when a song that was already great, and already would have been a classic, transforms, and transcends… that lyric: “freedom.” Expanding, overwhelming… miraculous. 

We collect and catalog these moments. Mixtape our memory. Call it inspiration; call it ammunition. Call it evidence, the building of a case for our species, the idea that as much tension as there is in this world, the release is worth fighting for.

Pull up the footage of Sam Cooke covering Blowin’ in the Wind. Or Gogol Bordello performing Wanderlust King on Letterman. Or the video for Never Catch Me by Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. Or Kesha hitting that high note in Praying. Or BTS tearing up as ARMY sings Young Forever at Wembley Stadium. Tension and release works so well in music because it’s a language our bodies already speak. At four minutes and nine seconds into Pa’lante by Hurray for the Riff Raff. We listen to our bodies. In Sabotage by the Beastie Boys: the breakdown at 1:40 and the scream at 1:52. We listen to our bodies. We feel. The bassline in Papa Was a Rolling Stone. The bassline in #1 Crush. The bassline in Come as You Are. The bassline in Dance, Dance. The bassline in Devil’s Pie.

At the lowest point in my life, I listened to D’angelo’s Voodoo every night, usually falling asleep about halfway through Send It On. But then there’s this moment, 42 minutes and 30 seconds later, in the song Untitled, where what feels like an entire album’s worth of sunrise finally erupts into day… and that would always wake me up.

And isn’t that art? Waking up.

Isn’t that the power of a moment? The DJ crossfades and a door opens. Between oblivion and being a body again. How does it feel? To step through it? 

Because yeah, it takes more than a moment… to win. Or to heal. Or to build the world we want to live in. But it only takes one moment to choose to fight. So make me a playlist of those moments, and I will listen to it whenever I need to remember: how small a seed it takes to birth a forest. How small a spark it takes to burn down an empire. How all it takes to break an infinite silence, is one… two, one two three…