Here, so many who have earned blood spill only paint. So many who have earned fire seek only respect. So many who have earned cutting the throat of the world want only to see their children grow up happy.
Now, we’re back to our regularly-scheduled program, and Button Poetry just released a brand new video for my poem “To the Informants in the Audience Tonight,” which you can find in my book, “Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough.”
For those who don’t already know, the book is a sci-fi concept album of a poetry collection, taking place on another world, so there were a lot of opportunities to explore very real-world issues through a different lens. This was one of the last poems I wrote for the book, and it was difficult. This is both a very bitter, angry poem, and a kind of ridiculously hopeful poem. I like the effect of that bitterness and that hope right next to each other, dancing with one another.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I swear I feel it buzz/ a voicemail from the nothing where something was…
For people who have been following my work, you might recognize this. It’s a new video for an older song. There are already a handful of different musical versions/remixes of this out there (including this one, produced by Big Cats, one of my favorite pieces of music I’ve ever been part of making), but I wanted to have an a capella version too.
You can tell this was shot a few years ago because (1) I don’t have a beard, which I feel like I’ve always had? And (2) I am performing this way too fast. Slow down!
Aside from the fairly straightforward content of the piece, it’s something I use in a lot of writing workshops because it’s… well, if I’m being honest, because it’s short and memorized—but also because it’s a demonstration of a tool we talk about a lot: concrete language. There’s concrete imagery throughout the piece (the water imagery, the cell phone vibrating, the stained glass, the physical feeling of laughing when you know you’re not supposed to, etc.), but specifically, I often use the first four bars as an example of starting a poem or song in a moment, as opposed to starting with an idea or statement.
As I try to always be careful to say, you don’t have to do that, and plenty of great songs and poems don’t do that. But I think opening with a scene/memory/”thing happening” (vs. opening with “here’s what I think about X!”) is a powerful tool, and I find it being used in a lot of writing that is meaningful to me.
I hope this piece can be useful to anyone else going through it. Here’s the full text:
First and foremost, THANK YOU to everyone who has picked up a copy of my little anti-authoritarian sci-fi poetry book. A whole lot of work and love and dread and intentionality went into it, so it means so much to see people engaging with it.
I just wanted to put a post together gathering some of the videos and other book-related content that we’ve released already, especially for anyone just hearing it about it for the first time now.
IN-STUDIO PERFORMANCE VIDEOS
Button Poetry has released other videos featuring my work this year (find them all here), but here are the ones that are from the new book (more on the way!):
No, no cops. Neighbors. Family. Helpers. Experts. Medics. Shamans. Scrappers. Friends-of-friends. Preachers. Healers. Mechanics. Witches. In-laws. Volunteers. Whatever. We’ll figure it out. But no cops.
A little context, for anyone interested: In my book, “Not a Lot of Reasons To Sing, But Enough,” there is a series of “tall tales” about the exile folk hero Hen March. I don’t know if I’d call them “poems,” but it doesn’t really matter; like stories and songs in our own world, they communicate a set of values about the society in which they are told.
For some real-world context, this is one of the many pieces in the book about abolition. This one is definitely the most straightforward; aside from the sci-fi conceit of “a folktale being told by a travelling poet on a prison colony moon where the prisoners have had their memories erased,” it’s a relatively blunt story about prevention vs. punishment, about how a world without police or prisons doesn’t have to be some perfect utopia; it can just be not this. Being able to imagine not this is important.
In a 2019 interview, Mariame Kaba said this about the prison industrial complex:
You’re allowed to say ‘not this.’ Your critique in and of itself is valid. You’re allowed to say ‘not this,’ and keep it moving. Why? Because we didn’t get into this problem yesterday. We got into it over time. This is a collective problem that lots of people’s hands are involved in. This is bipartisan to the nth degree. So why then is a problem that was formulated by a lot of people over a long period of time expected to be resolved by one person giving the solution to the problem or having to shut up? Because what they’re selling you is not just like ‘you don’t get it,’ it’s ‘you come up with solution or you say nothing’ and I absolutely reject that. I reject that on its face. I think that is a way to silence people with radical critiques.
So that’s a starting point. For this piece, I wanted to use the “tall tale” format as an entry point into these ideas. There’s a lot of freedom in that approach—it isn’t my voice telling people what to think; it’s a character being referenced by another character, and the different layers of voice, hopefully, create room for readers/listeners to engage with the content as a story, as opposed to a powerpoint presentation of talking points.
A big goal/project/impulse in the book is that kind of “entry point” work. This poem, as well as poems like Good Apples, Wireless It Might Scream, Why Do You Write Poems When Death Is All Around Us, and others all engage with abolitionist ideas, although that specific word is never used. That relates to another theme in the book: the idea of how individual poems, songs, or other creative efforts can contribute to a larger story, without having to be the whole story. My book is absolutely not the book you read if you’re already interested in abolition and want to learn more; my hope is that it can plant a seed, especially for people new to the concept, whether they’re Button Poetry fans, sci-fi fans, or just people who randomly saw the book in a bookstore and thought the cover looked cool.
All that being said, if you ARE already interested in abolition and want to learn more, I have some fantastic resources to share:
One more MPD150 resource: The #AbolitionReadings series is a curated selection of some of the most powerful writing on abolition over the past few years. If you’re serious about learning more, it’s a really valuable collection.
Micah Herskind put together a big list of abolitionist books; my personal recommendations would be Mariame Kaba’s “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us” and Derecka Purnell’s “Becoming Abolitionists.”
Also, I may grow this into a separate post later, but for now, here are a couple of other abolitionist (or abolitionist-adjacent) poems I’d recommend:
(Editor’s note: this video was scheduled to be released today, and there’s obviously other stuff on a lot of people’s minds because of yesterday’s supreme court news. While the thread in this poem of masculinity only being able to make sense of itself through the lens of power and control is relevant, if it can be useful to anyone, I’ve also pulled together a list of poems on reproductive justice here).
This is actually an older piece; Button Poetry posted a version of it back in 2019, but there was an audio issue, so we decided to record this new version. I’m grateful, as always, to them for giving an admittedly… nontraditional poem/speech/thing like this a home.
It’s also a fun break from promoting my new book; the sci-fi-driven “Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough” definitely has a thread running through it examining masculinity and its relationship with authoritarianism, but a poem like this, taking place on our world, written in my own voice, can be a lot more straightforward. I don’t think “straightforward” is a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just one way for a poem to be, and I like experimenting with multiple ways.
We’re having a free, virtual launch performance for the new book on Tuesday, April 12, 2022, at 7pm Central. This post is collecting some of stuff that I’ll likely be talking about, so they can all be in one place instead of a dozen different links.
This page also doubles as a good “how to support the book” page for people who want to; that is very much appreciated!
After the plague took my sister, I punched the stone wall of her room so hard it shattered all the bones in my right hand. This is how the men in my family tell sad stories: we always add a little violence.
The first poem from the new book is here! NOT A LOT OF REASONS TO SING, BUT ENOUGH itself officially launches on March 29 (though if you order it from Button Poetry, you can get it early), and this poem is a good taste of things to come. Before I share some notes on the poem, I want to spotlight Casper Pham‘s incredible piece that accompanies this poem (Casper also has illustrations throughout the book):
1. If you haven’t already heard, the new book is a “concept album,” so to speak, and all the poems are written in-character. It isn’t always clear which character is the voice of each poem, though; there’s a kind of focal-point character, Nary, but Nary and his mentor Gyre travel from village to village across this prison colony moon, and they share their poems while also listening to the poems of the people in those villages. The book is made up of a sampling of all those poems, as well as the conversations around them. The big takeaway, I guess, is that even though I wrote this, I am not the speaker.
2. This poem is a play off of my most well-known poem, “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’.” I just thought it’d be funny to be on stage and say “ten responses to…” and then something completely different from what the audience expects. It kind of sets up what the book is all about, in terms of… probably not being what people expect. That being said, this poem also demonstrates that the new, weird book is still covering a lot of the same ground as my older work: this is a poem creating space to think critically about masculinity, authority, and power.
Here’s the full text; thank you for reading, listening, and/or picking up the new book. Please feel free to share!
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…
The poem itself is really just me trying to write something for my 18 year-old self, illuminating the various arguments I’ve heard, from organizers over the years, about why and how voting matters. It’s very rarely “vote because you have to!” or “vote because it’s the only way you can have a voice!” The best arguments, or at least the ones that have been most persuasive to me, are more nuanced than that. Not that nuance is always my thing as a poet… but here’s the poem (and a link to an IG version):