Call me Hmong before you call me American/ because Hmong is the closest word I know to home…

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.

The first line of this poem is “Eight responses to the phrase ‘go back to where you came from,’” and Yang uses that setup to craft a narrative that is both deeply political and deeply personal. Specifically, there’s a moment in the poem where the phrase/question is turned back to its speaker: “Do you ever wonder where you come from?” That structure—starting with a kind of defensive humor and naturally transitioning into proud defiance, using the language itself as a fulcrum—gives this poem a powerful arc.

A lot of aspiring/emerging poets struggle with structure. This may be because of the stereotype of poetry as this kind of magical, pure, stream-of-consciousness expression. And sure, that can be powerful. But if you watch enough *good* spoken word, you’ll see how much intentionality goes into structure– not “structure” in the same way that sonnets or haikus have specific rules/formats, but more like an organizing impulse. That may be as simple as giving a poem an introduction, middle, climax, and resolution (with intentional transitions between ideas), or something more complex and challenging that plays with formula and subverts audience expectations.

When talking about this broader idea of structure with students, we often ask questions like: Is there a reason the poem starts where it starts? Could it start somewhere else? Is there a reason the poem ends where it ends? Does it “earn” that ending based on what came before? How does the poem “move” from one stanza/idea/section to the next? What would the effect of rearranging some of those ideas be? When you say the poem out loud, does it “feel” right in terms of its flow and timing?

If you know Kevin Yang’s work, you may also know how good he is at structuring poems. He’s also, for me, one of the best at taking on explicitly political issues and putting a human face on them. This is a poem about big issues like xenophobia, the refugee experience, and finding home, but it’s also a poem about small, specific moments– the conversation with the elder, the wisdom of the mother, the hummingbird. As poets, we earn the “big stuff” via the care we put into writing the “little stuff,” and Yang does that so well.

Further Reading:

  • Doualy Xaykaothao: To Be Midwestern and Hmong (The Atlantic)
  • Be sure to check out Kevin’s other poems online! He’s one of my favorite poets, and has a ton of work that is especially useful for teachers/educators looking for poems to use in the classroom.
  • Full list of poem commentary/analysis essays

(I’m in the middle of overhauling this page; the list that used to be here was getting too outdated and unwieldy, so I’m taking a breath to update it. While that work continues, I’ve shared a few playlists and resources below.

EXISTING RESOURCES AND PLAYLISTS

A PLAYLIST OF PLAYLISTS

Note: the last box here, climate justice, isn’t up yet; it’s a work in progress.

POTENTIAL STARTING POINTS + PERSONAL FAVORITES

Here are a a few poems that I feel like represent what makes spoken word special, especially in the context of how stories and images can be entry points into deeper conversations about issues. If I were going to share any poems with someone who knew nothing about spoken word, or had a bunch of misconceptions about it, I’d probably draw from this list.

Lots more on the way.

Confederate statue in Durham torn down; image from here.

EDIT: This was originally posted in 2017 and was focused on Charlottesville, but I’ve since added more resources to the list, and broadened the scope to disrupting and dismantling white supremacy in general. My hope is that it can be useful to teachers, but also anyone looking to do this work.

At the top of this week, the Washington Post published this piece by Valerie Strauss: The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s help. The following links contain more ideas for resources, readings, and lesson plans, and may be a good place to start for educators who know that current events matter, and that not talking about Charlottesville makes a statement to your students that’s just as loud as any conversation or critical exploration.

Because my background is in using spoken word as a tool for narrative-shifting and opening up spaces for authentic dialogue, I also wanted to share a few poems that have been on my mind lately. As always, list-making is tricky. This is not a list of the “best” poems about this topic, or even a list of just “poems about racism.” 

This is a list of poems that might be useful for educators looking for artistic work that can prompt some critical thinking about white supremacy.

I’m also thinking about this list in terms of what work needs to be done in educational spaces. Understanding the motivations of– and contextual factors that cultivate– white supremacists is one angle, but so is making connections between the explicit hate espoused by neo-nazis and the more subtle, implicit ways that white supremacist ideology pops up in everyday life. I think these poems, in different ways, explore those connections. Maybe we shouldn’t need personal, human stories to create empathy, to illuminate that other human beings matter. But they can be tools for that, when it’s called for. These poems also use metaphor, symbolism, narrative, and other tools to push the listener beyond the notion that racism is just “people being mean to each other because they’re different.”

Of course, not every poem is appropriate for every audience. Be sure to review before presenting, both in terms of language/accessibility stuff and relevance. Also of course, “talking about racism” is a first step, not a last one, and we should challenge ourselves to find ways to embed anti-racist approaches and policies into our schools and institutions in more concrete ways as well.

Joseph Capehart – “Colorblind”
This poem uses humor to open up space for a powerful critique for the very common idea that “not seeing color” is the answer to racism. “You want to strip me clean; bleach away the parts of me that make you uncomfortable… when you say ‘colorblind,’ you are asking me to forget.”

Patricia Smith – Skinhead
A classic poem that seeks to explore the motivations of hateful bigots, without ever making excuses for them. There’s so much in here about empathy (in a critical sense), perspective, and what lenses people use to see the world.

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre – “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist”
I wanted to write something about how “white supremacy” is bigger and more insidious than just literal white supremacists marching around with torches. But this is also about highlighting the *connection* between those people and the everyday acts/attitudes/policies that make them possible. Pushing back has to happen at multiple levels too– denouncing and disrupting specific acts of terror, but also uprooting their worldview in the classroom, the office, the church, the comment thread, the home, and everywhere.

Kevin Yang – “Come Home”
This poem is warm, funny, and approachable, using empathy-generating personal stories to make a larger point about xenophobia, the refugee experience, and finding home. “Call me Hmong before you call me American, because Hmong is the closest word I know to home.”

T. Miller – “Ten Things You Sound Like When You Say AllLivesMatter in Response to BlackLivesMatter”
Another piece that uses juxtaposition and humor to highlight the absurdity of how white supremacy is, and isn’t, talked about in the US.

Bao Phi – “Broken/English”
This poem is heartbreaking. Sad poems can be useful when crafting activities or discussions focused on walking in someone else’s shoes. “Year after year she makes flowers bloom in the hood, petals in the face of this land that doesn’t want her here.”

Anthony McPherson – All Lives Matter (1800s Edition)
I can’t think of a better deconstruction of the excuses and rationalizations that white people use to distance themselves from white supremacy. Obviously, this won’t work for every audience, in every situation, but it can be a very powerful exploration of how rhetoric can be used to mask racism.

Christy NaMee Eriksen – If Racism Was a Burning Kitchen (text only)
Talking about racism involves *talking* about racism, and this piece has always been a favorite of mine because of how it illuminates how those conversations so often go. It’s absurdist, and even funny, but it points to something deadly serious and can be a useful entry point for talking about how we talk about racism.

Carlos Andrés Gómez – “12 Reasons to Abolish C.B.P & I.C.E”
So much white supremacist terrorism takes root in xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate. This poem can be a first step toward interrogating that.

Adam Falkner – “The Definition of Privilege”
For a concept that is so straightforward, privilege can be a challenging thing to talk about for a lot of people. This poem tells a story that breaks it down.

William Evans – “They Love Us Here”
Students sometimes struggle with the notion that tokenism, “positive” stereotypes, or other forms of “benevolent racism” are harmful. Even well-meaning people can contribute to a white supremacist society. This poem can be an entry point into that conversation.

Denice Frohman – “Borders”
Yet another poem showcasing the power of storytelling; this is a poem that might have different things to say to different audiences- but they’re all valuable.

Jared Paul – “5 Times My Skin Color Did Not Kill Me”
Storytelling can communicate information in ways that facts and statistics can’t. In this poem/TEDx Talk, Jared Paul simply tells five stories from his life that illustrate how whiteness works in context, even for people who would not consider themselves privileged.

Aamer Rahman – “Reverse Racism
I’m cheating here since this isn’t a poem; it’s just really good. One reason we talk so much about “racism” in the US rather than “white supremacy” is because racism can be (incorrectly) framed as attitude. And anyone of any identity can have a bad attitude. But white supremacy is about power. It’s about history. And this short video illustrates that perfectly.

I hope this list can be useful; feel free to use it as a starting point to create your own. 

Of course, these are all for sparking dialogue, because dialogue matters. But action also matters. Whether it’s a classroom full of high-schoolers, a book club, a discussion group in a church basement, or some other setting, what matters is how we translate these discussions, these epiphanies, and these feelings into action.

A few months ago, Button Poetry asked if I might be interested in doing some more in-depth write-ups of a handful of poems going up on their channel. It felt like a good opportunity to shine a spotlight on some other artists, as well as share some basic critical analysis tools with Button’s (considerable!) audience. Spoken word video has, after all, really blown up over the past few years, with millions of people watching poems online, sharing them, and beginning to participate themselves. I believe this is a good thing.

What’s maybe missing, to some extent, is the space to develop some critique skills that go beyond “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” We do this in classes, workshops, and writing circles, but not everyone has access to those. We do this in informal conversations with one-another, but again, not everyone has access to those. And since there aren’t really a lot of big spoken word-focused blogs, podcasts, journals, etc. (in the same way that there are for, for example, Hip Hop, or traditional page poetry), this felt like a niche we could start to fill.

Because that process– of figuring out why we like something, or analyzing what makes a particular poem work, or being able to identify the tools and techniques being used– is bigger than just poetry. That’s about cultivating curiosity and critical thinking. Ideally, more people will begin doing this, both through Button and on their own.

For now, here are the write-ups that I’ve done. Note: Button posts a new video pretty much every day, so I’m not writing up every single one– just the ones they send me. I hope these are interesting and/or useful. Feel free to post your own thoughts, disagreements, and observations.

Dave Harris: To The Extent X Body Including its Fists Constitute “Weapons”

Sam Sax: Written to be Yelled at Trump Tower During a Vigil for The NEA

Bianca Phipps: Stay With Me

Donte Collins: New Country (after Safia Elhillo)

Hanif Abdurraqib: Watching A Fight At The New Haven Dog Park

Javon Johnson: Baby Brother

Blythe Baird: Yet Another Rape Poem

Hanif Abdurraqib: At My First Punk Rock Show Ever, 1998

William Evans: They Love Us Here

Jared Singer: Silence

Ariana Brown: Ode to Thrift Stores

Mitcholos: Cacophony

Alysia Harris: Joy

Carmen Gillespie: Blue Black Wet of Wood

Olivia Gatwood: When I Say We Are All Teen Girls

Franny Choi: Split Mouth

Billy Tuggle: Marvin’s Last Verses

William Evans: Bathroom Etiquette

Talia Young: While My Love Sleeps I Cook Dinner

Bao Phi: Broken/English

Soups: The Dark Side of Being Mixed

Ashaki Jackson: The Public is Generally Self taught and Uninformed

Rudy Francisco: The Heart and the Fist

Hieu Minh Nguyen: The Translation of Grief

Isha Camara: Loudest Burial

Bianca Phipps: When the Boy Says He Loves My Body

Suzi Q Smith: Bones

Pages Matam, Elizabeth Acevedo, and G. Yamazawa: Unforgettable

Bernard Ferguson: Love Does Not Want This Body

Muna Abdulahi: Explaining Depression to a Refugee

Kevin Yang: Come Home

Danez Smith: Trees

Guante: A Pragmatist’s Guide to Magic

EJ Schoenborn: Controversial Opinion: In Defense of Cargo Shorts

(to be continued)

“How can you become what you cannot imagine?” -bell hooks

Here’s the last episode of season one! We recorded this LIVE at the University of Minnesota in November 2019. We knew we wanted to end the season with something forward-looking, speculative, and maybe a little weird. We also knew we wanted to bring in a bunch of other voices. These guests were so generous, and so brilliant; we’re super grateful for their contributions.

Thanks also to all of the sponsoring organizations at the University of Minnesota: the Women’s Center, the Asian Pacific American Resource Center, the Aurora Center, the Office of Fraternity/Sorority Life, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Program. It’s definitely cool to see that kind of collaboration; if you’d like to bring #WhatsGoodMan to YOUR college, conference, or other space, get in touch!

Also thanks to all of our listeners over the past few months. It means a lot, and we hope people will keep sharing episodes, sharing quotes, leaving reviews, and of course- continuing the conversations, whether that’s with the hashtag #WhatsGoodMan on social media, or in real life!

We will be back!

(L-R) top row: Kyle, Malik, Alec, Sawyer, Abeer; lower row: Mick, tony, Katie
(more…)

EDIT (8/5/19): This was originally posted in 2017 and was focused on Charlottesville, but I’ve since added even more resources to this list, and broadened the scope to disrupting and dismantling white supremacy in general. That’s work that has to happen early, and teachers can play an important role.

Confederate statue in Durham torn down; image from here.

At the top of this week, the Washington Post published this piece by Valerie Strauss: The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s help.

Update: a couple other good links:

Those links contain more links to resources, readings, and lesson plans, and may be a good place to start for educators who know that current events matter, and that not talking about Charlottesville makes a statement to your students that’s just as loud as any conversation or critical exploration.

In that spirit, and because my background is in using spoken word as a tool for narrative-building and opening up spaces for authentic dialogue, I wanted to share a few poems that have been on my mind lately. As always, list-making is tricky. This is not a list of the “best” poems about this topic, or even a list of just “poems about racism.” This is a list of poems that might be useful for educators looking for artistic work that can prompt some critical thinking about hate, white supremacy, and the recent events in Charlottesville.

I’m also thinking about this list in terms of what work needs to be done in educational spaces. Understanding the motivations of– and contextual factors that cultivate– white supremacists is one angle, but so is making connections between the explicit hate espoused by neo-nazis and the more subtle, implicit ways that white supremacist ideology pops up in everyday life. I think these poems, in different ways, explore those connections. Maybe we shouldn’t need personal, human stories to create empathy, to illuminate that other human beings matter. But they can be tools for that, when it’s called for. These poems also use metaphor, symbolism, narrative, and other tools to push the listener beyond the notion that racism is just “people being mean to each other because they’re different.”

Of course, not every poem is appropriate for every audience. Be sure to review before presenting, both in terms of language/accessibility stuff and relevance. Also of course, “talking about racism” is a first step, not a last one, and we should challenge ourselves to find ways to embed anti-racist approaches and policies into our schools and institutions in more concrete ways as well.

Joseph Capehart – “Colorblind”
This poem uses humor to open up space for a powerful critique for the very common idea that “not seeing color” is the answer to racism. “You want to strip me clean; bleach away the parts of me that make you uncomfortable… when you say ‘colorblind,’ you are asking me to forget.”

Storytelling can communicate information in ways that facts and statistics can’t. In this poem/TEDx Talk, Jared Paul simply tells five stories from his life that illustrate how whiteness works in context, even for people who would not consider themselves privileged.
Guante – “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist”

I wanted to write something about how “white supremacy” is bigger and more insidious than just literal white supremacists marching around with torches. But this is also about highlighting the *connection* between those people and the everyday acts/attitudes/policies that make them possible. Pushing back has to happen at multiple levels too– denouncing and disrupting specific acts of terror, but also uprooting their worldview in the classroom, the office, the church, the comment thread, the home, and everywhere.

Patricia Smith – Skinhead
A classic poem that seeks to explore the motivations of hateful bigots, without ever making excuses for them. There’s so much in here about empathy (in a critical sense), perspective, and what lenses people use to see the world.

Kevin Yang – “Come Home”
This poem is warm, funny, and approachable, using empathy-generating personal stories to make a larger point about xenophobia, the refugee experience, and finding home. “Call me Hmong before you call me American, because Hmong is the closest word I know to home.”


This poem is heartbreaking. Sad poems can be useful when crafting activities or discussions focused on walking in someone else’s shoes. “Year after year she makes flowers bloom in the hood, petals in the face of this land that doesn’t want her here.”

Talking about racism involves *talking* about racism, and this piece has always been a favorite of mine because of how it illuminates how those conversations so often go. It’s absurdist, and even funny, but it points to something deadly serious and can be a useful entry point for talking about how we talk about racism.

Anthony McPherson – All Lives Matter (1800s Edition)
I can’t think of a better deconstruction of the excuses and rationalizations that white people use to distance themselves from white supremacy. Obviously, this won’t work for every audience, in every situation, but it can be a very powerful exploration of how rhetoric can be used to mask racism.

Another piece that uses juxtaposition and humor to highlight the absurdity of how white supremacy is, and isn’t, talked about in the US.

William Evans – “They Love Us Here”
Students sometimes struggle with the notion that tokenism, “positive” stereotypes, or other forms of “benevolent racism” are harmful. Even well-meaning people can contribute to a white supremacist society. This poem can be an entry point into that conversation.

Carlos Andrés Gómez – “12 Reasons to Abolish C.B.P & I.C.E”
So much white supremacist terrorism takes root in xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate. This poem can be a first step toward interrogating that.

Denice Frohman – “Borders”
Yet another poem showcasing the power of storytelling; this is a poem that might have different things to say to different audiences- but they’re all valuable.

Aamer Rahman – “Reverse Racism”
I’m cheating here since this isn’t a poem; it’s just really good. One reason we talk so much about “racism” in the US rather than “white supremacy” is because racism can be (incorrectly) framed as attitude. And anyone of any identity can have a bad attitude. But white supremacy is about power. It’s about history. And this short video illustrates that perfectly.

    Hope those can be useful; feel free to share more in the comments. 

    Of course, these are all for sparking dialogue, because dialogue matters. But action also matters. Whether it’s a classroom full of high-schoolers, a book club, a discussion group in a church basement, or some other setting, what matters is how we translate these discussions, these epiphanies, and these feelings into action. That’s another post, but hopefully, there’s something here that can be a useful start.

    On May 20, 2015, Chava Gabrielle and I gathered a bunch of poets we like for an event called #YesYesYes: An Evening of Poems and Songs About Consent and Healthy Sexuality.

    It was a really beautiful event, and I’m happy to say that Line Break Media was able to film almost all of it. I will be posting new videos on my YouTube page, and then updating this post as they go live. If you see anything that resonates with you, feel free to share it, and/or this whole page. I think it’s important to document this kind of work.

    The videos here are from the event, but I’ve also put together a list of a dozen MORE poems about consent, healthy sexuality, and dismantling rape culture HERE (it’s the second section). Hopefully, all of these poems can be useful for any advocates, educators, or activists out there.

    Chava Gabrielle: Three Poems, including “When You Piss On a Tree Outside a Dog’s Home You Are Bound to Hear Barking: An Examination of Territorialism & Asking Permission”

    Kenny Ngo: “Dear Lover”

    Thressa Johnson: Two poems: “Bright Light” and “This Body.” Get Thressa’s book here!

    Keno Evol: “More Recent Memories”

    Simone Williams: “Asking for It” and an untitled poem

    Ally and Sophie perform a group piece:

    Anna Binkovitz performed at the event too; rather than post the footage I have, I figured it made more sense to to just link to an existing video:

    Kevin Yang also performed; again, here’s footage of one of the poems he did, even though it’s not footage from the event itself:

    My poem didn’t get recorded at the event itself, but here’s different footage of the same poem, “Consent at 10,000 Feet” over at Button Poetry. Another one of my poems that is relevant here is “Action.”

    We also had music from See More Perspective‘s album “Sex Tape,” which engages in a very powerful way with these concepts through hip hop; here’s a song, but go get the whole album (and the Prince tribute remix album):
    SEX TAPE (Or My Response to Our Morbidly Underdeveloped Sex Education) by SEE MORE PERSPECTIVE

    More poems here!

    A few big updates:

    On Wednesday, May 20, this consent-themed spoken-word show will be happening at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. Performers include Keno Evol, Thressa Isobel, Kevin Yang, Simone Williams, Kenny Ngo, Sophie & Ally, and See More Perspective, as well as Chava Gabrielle and me. Here’s the FB event page.

    Chava approached me about collaborating on this event a few months ago, and it’s shaping up to be very cool. Sponsors include great organizations like TruArtSpeaks, The Aurora Center, The Sexual Violence Center, Line Break Media, and Intermedia Arts, and we’ll be doing some audience-centered interactive stuff too. It’s also good timing; if you missed my brand new poem, “Consent at 10,000 Feet,” check it out here.

    This past Friday, the Sifu Hotman song “Matches” was featured on Welcome to Night Vale. If you don’t know, Sifu Hotman is a collaborative hip hop project featuring me, producer Rube, and rising indie-rap star deM atlaS. And Welcome to Night Vale, apparently, is the most popular podcast in the world. A friend suggested we submit some music, and we did, not thinking much of it. But now that they’ve played it, the response has been overwhelming. It’s so great to have this project in particular get a big second push, because I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with. If you missed it during the first run, you can get it here.

    Update: as of right now, Sifu Hotman’s “Embrace the Sun” is also the #1 best-selling hip hop album on Bandcamp. So that’s cool.

    Lots of other stuff happening, as always. First of all, thanks to Daniel Rangel for the new header photo; more media coming soon. Also, we’re still pushing the big #7UpForSocialChange campaign over at TruArtSpeaks, and I’m so excited about that work. Lots of new projects in the works. Lots of shows coming up, especially once we get into autumn. In the meantime, I want to plug my Twitter feed, where I try to share not only updates on my own work, but link to as much cool stuff as I can. That’s the best place to keep in touch. Please do.