New over on Button Poetry’s channel: an a capella rendition of my two verses from the song “Matches.”

You may know it from the Sifu Hotman album, or from it being featured as the weather on an episode of Welcome to Night Vale. It’s kind of a personal “mission statement,” something that drives a lot of what I try to do. The full lyrics are available here.

The song wasn’t written about the climate crisis, but let’s talk about it.
I’m thinking about this song in the context of today’s Global Climate Strike. Part of the song is about rejecting the narrative of the individual hero or revolutionary, and instead attempting to tap into something larger, something more communal, something more connected. Because when it comes to this work, individual action will not be enough. We need large-scale, sustainable policy change, the the mass movements that can drive that policy change. So that means joining organizations, donating to organizations, voting for candidates with bold plans to tackle the problem, pressuring the politicians who don’t, and dreaming bigger.

And yeah, if I recycle, use less plastic, and pick up litter at the park on the way there, that’s fine. But those actions are not a substitute for organizing. There’s a reason the song ends with “it’s a good thing we brought matches” and not “it’s a good thing I brought matches.”

Here in MN, today’s climate strike is sponsored by a bunch of organizations that are worth a follow, from MN350, to TakeAction MN, to MN Youth Climate Strike and beyond. Check out the “hosted by” list at the event page.

I’d also recommend checking out poet Bernard Ferguson’s fantastic “Hurricane Dorian Was a Climate Injustice” in the New Yorker, on the difference between unavoidable tragedy and avoidable injustice. Also, this profile of MN’s own Isra Hirsi, who makes vital connections between environmental justice and racial justice.

“Who do you want to be at the end of the world?”
When it comes to the climate crisis, there’s one essay I recommend everyone read: Kelly Hayes“Saturday Afternoon Thoughts on the Apocalypse.” THIS QUOTE:

“And there is nothing revolutionary about fatalism. I suppose the question is, are you antifascist? Are you a revolutionary? Are you a defender of decency and life on Earth? Because no one who is any of those things has ever had the odds on their side. But you know what we do have? A meaningful existence on the edge of oblivion. And if the end really is only a few decades away, and no human intervention can stop it, then who do you want to be at the end of the world?”

Art by Peregrine

“How loud do you have to be to put out a house fire with just your voice?”

Yeah, the title is in scare quotes. Hopefully that comes through. As I often do with two poems, I wanted to share a few notes on process, and then some poems by other writers that tackle the topic in different ways.

A Few Notes on Process
This is a poem about a specific issue, but it’s also a poem that is exploring a couple different impulses:

  • I’m really interested in how we, as artists and writers, respond to fascism. I’ve written about this before, but I think ONE thing to think about is the importance of saying something, even when that something isn’t perfect or revelatory or magical. This isn’t a perfect poem, haha. It isn’t the most creative thing I’ve written. But it was important to me to stand up on a stage and say it, as soon as I had the opportunity. The poem might continue to get revised and people might catch a new draft at some point, but to me, the timeliness was more important than the timelessness.
  • The poem is also the product of a lot of conversations I’ve had with activists, organizers and advocates who work on issues related to gender, feminism, and reproductive justice. The refrain is always “men (especially cis men) need to speak up more.” That can seem super obvious, but it can be easy to forget when you’re “in” that world; for me, I’m around powerful voices who speak out on these issues all the time- that’s just my community. So I’ve often felt a pull to step back- which CAN be a healthy impulse! It can also, however, sometimes be an excuse to not do any work. It’s like, yes, it’s messed up that “men talking about being pro-choice” is still seen as bold or interesting- but that’s not an excuse not to do it.
  • I’m also really interested in multi-vocal responses, how no one poem has to be “definitive.” Multiple poems can present different angles of an argument, different POVs, etc. There are some examples below, but this framework has helped me as a writer: a poem doesn’t have to be all things to all people. A poem doesn’t have to be the conversation; it can be one piece of a much larger conversation (and different pieces may be able to do different “work” for different audiences, in different contexts). That realization, for me, has been freeing.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the power of poems to changes minds, especially about issues like abortion rights. That being said, poems can do so many other things. They can open up spaces for dialogue, they can provide useful frameworks or metaphors for understanding, they can contribute in ways both large and small to the ongoing push-and-pull of how the larger culture frames and understands complex issues, and they can plant seeds (while watering other seeds that have already been planted!)

More Poems and Resources on Reproductive Justice
This summer, I’ve been sharing my lists a lot: poems about white supremacy, poems about toxic masculinity, poems that have been useful to me in educational spaces. The idea is that hopefully, teachers and other educators can use these poems as entry points to dialogue.

A lot of those lists pull from this bigger list of spoken word poems organized by topic. I don’t have a specific list of poems on reproductive justice yet, but this is as good a time as any to start one. If you know of others, please share in the comments! Here are a few:

Finally, these aren’t poems, but if there’s anyone for whom this is a new issue, or you’d just like to learn more, or get involved, a few links:

Thank you! Please feel free to share. Full transcript:

Continue reading “New Poem: “Pro-Life” + Other Poems on Reproductive Justice”

Some other big news on the way, but just a quick update: you can now listen to my book! I did the voiceover myself, in Big Cats’ studio.

One part mixtape, one part disorientation guide, and one part career retrospective, this book brings together spoken word poems, song lyrics, and essays from the past decade of Guante’s work. From the exploration of toxic masculinity in “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’,” to the throwback humanist hip hop of “Matches,” to a one-act play on the racial and cultural politics of Eminem, “A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry” is a practitioners eye-view of the intersections of hip hop, poetry, and social justice.

Get it here!

Share all the info in this post via this downloadable and foldable zine too.

Spoken word isn’t about a handful of “great” artists who have lots of video views or publishing accolades; it’s about how everyone has a story, and every story has value.

In that spirit, I wanted to consolidate a few resources, links, and tips that I’ve shared with young (and not-so-young) people all over the country. If YOU are interested in spoken word (or poetry, writing, art, more generally), whether that means finding somewhere to share your work, getting feedback to sharpen your craft, or just being around poets and building community, here are a few thoughts. Feel free to add more in the comments below.

1. Show Up: Attend an Open Mic or Poetry Slam
One of the best ways to get involved is to simply dive in—whether as a performer or just as an audience member. Spoken word is built around open mics, poetry slams, and other spaces in which anyone can show up and share something. While I realize that not everyone reading this lives in the Twin Cities, here is my big list of Twin Cities open mics, slams, and other opportunities. If you’re here, use it. If you’re not here, do a little searching and find the similar events in your community. Specifically, I want to shout out two of TruArtSpeaks‘ programs:

  • The Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series (happens every January-March); a huge opportunity for MN youth poets to meet each other, tell their stories, and have fun.
  • The ReVerb Open Mic (free, all ages; happens every Thursday night, year-round, 7pm at Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in Saint Paul); one of the most community-oriented, supportive open mics I’ve been to.
  • There’s also Button Poetry Live, The Free Black Table, the OUTspoken open mic, college slams, and much more. Here’s the full list.
  • This list is more spoken word-oriented, but if you’re looking for information on how to dive into the publishing world, here’s a potential starting point.

2. Build Your Cypher: Connect with Other Writers
Writing is about community. Many high schools and colleges have spoken word clubs, and showing up to those can be a great first step. If you’re a student and your school doesn’t have one, start one!

It doesn’t have to be as formal as a club or student organization. What counts is community—maybe it’s just a circle of friends who meet up once a week to give each other feedback. Maybe it’s an online document that multiple people can edit. But getting feedback from other writers, having someone to bounce ideas around with (and not just trade Instagram likes)—that’s vital.

Revision is 85% of the battle. First drafts are not ever as good as they potentially could be. Break out of the mindset that the poem is this magical, perfect thing that just bursts fully-formed from your head. Your peers, friends, and mentors can have a lot to offer.

3. Read More, Watch More, Write More
The deluge of poetry on Instagram and YouTube over the past five years or so has meant that there’s more poetry than ever before, right at your fingertips. I’d argue that this is a good thing, but the flipside is that there’s a lot of not-so-great work out there too. That’s natural; that’s fine. But it can make learning and growing as an artist a challenge: is the IG poem with ten thousand likes a “good” poem? Is your poem, that didn’t win the poetry slam, a “bad” poem? What does that even mean?

There aren’t easy answers to those questions, if there are answers at all. The key is to never stop developing your critical eye/ear. This is work. Almost every poet or artist I know whom I would call successful has years and years of work under their belts. That work doesn’t have to be some fancy, inaccessible degree or whatever– but it does have to be work. That work can be fun, though. Here are a few thoughts and resources:

  • Some good background info: Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Spoken Word and Slam Poetry
  • While online video providers have thousands of poems you could potentially watch, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend just typing “slam poetry” into a YouTube search bar. Here are a couple of lists of poems that might provide good starts:
  • In terms of books, there are too many great poets to shout out here, but a couple of presses that regularly publish work by poets who also participate in spoken word: Write Bloody, Button Poetry, Coffee House Press, Haymarket Books– I could go on and on; feel free to add more in the comments. There are also journals and zines like Poetry Magazine, Paper Darts, Mizna, Muzzle, and many, many more.
  • Lots of social media accounts share poetry; a lot of is bad. There are some, though, that regularly share good, curated stuff: @PoetryMagazine@SlowDownShow@POETSorg, and Litbowl.
  • Check out the VS podcast w/ Franny Choi and Danez Smith.
  • Every April, TruArtSpeaks shares a daily writing prompt. Other sites, organizations, and accounts do this as well. Try to find some you like, and potentially try writing a 30/30 (30 poems in thirty days).

4. Take Advantage of Opportunities to Sharpen Your Craft
For artists, growth can happen both inside and outside of formal spaces. Classes, workshops, conferences, festivals, cyphers, e-classes– wherever you can find that support, take advantage of it. Again, to use the Twin Cities as an example, a few shout outs:

5. My Video Series on Spoken Word Tips, Tools, and TacticsIf the opportunities in the last point aren’t as accessible to you– there are some good tools on the internet too. This video series is about sharing some of the ideas that have been helpful to me as a writer and performer. Honestly, when people send me their poems for feedback, 95% of the time, my feedback is based on video #2 and video #5. More videos on the way.

  • Intro/Five Things I Look for in Poems
  • On Concrete Language, Specificity, and Turning Ideas into Poems
  • Spoken Word Performance Tips and a Note on “Poet Voice”
  • On “Diving In” and Getting Involved with Spoken Word
  • On Revision
  • Even though my TEDx Talk isn’t specifically about poetry, it does contain a lot of insight into my writing process and may be worth a watch.

A running theme through all of these points is the idea that craft matters. Of course, if you’re just writing poetry for your own healing or enjoyment, whether some other poet or critic likes it or not is beside the point. But if you’re someone who is trying to make a career out of it, or really wants to find some measure of concrete success (book sales, publishing credits, a larger audience, etc.), then I hope these links, thoughts, and resources can be useful.

(BONUS POINT) 6. Live Your Life
Writing is important, but the best poems don’t come from locking ourselves away in a cabin and just writing for 20 hours every day. They come from engaging with our community, showing up to things, experiencing the world, having conversations, organizing and rabble-rousing, thinking critically, and then writing. Have fun.

(BONUS POINT) 7. Quick/Basic Writing Advice
There isn’t enough space here to go too in-depth with writing tips, but if I could share anything with an aspiring poet, it’d be this. The poems that stick with me…

  • …tend to be driven by images, not just ideas. They’re not just “deep thoughts” or manifestos; they use imagery, storytelling, and metaphor to go beyond the surface of an idea.
  • …tend to have creative HOOKS: the concept or angle that makes a poem fresh. How is your love poem different from all the other love poems out there? How is it uniquely yours?
  • …tend to be focused and specific. They don’t try to tell “the whole story.” They take one moment from that story, zoom in, and explore it.
  • …tend to be more concerned with being timely than timeless. You are free to agree or disagree with this one! I appreciate poems that comment on the world as it is, and/or try to help me envision a better one. 

Check out the zine for more!

photo by Tony Gao

For those who don’t know, April is National Poetry Month. For some, that means they share poetry on social media, or book poets to visit their schools (wink); others engage in “30/30s,” writing 30 poems in 30 days.

To be honest, I’ve never done a 30/30 and don’t plan to. I definitely encourage others to try it, as long as it feels like a healthy challenge, and not something stressful; it just doesn’t work for my personal process. I do, however, love the idea of sharing writing prompts, little poem starters or ideas for people who are looking for some inspiration, or are struggling with writer’s block.

TruArtSpeaks is sharing a writing prompt every day this month. Young Chicago Authors also has an archive of prompts. There are plenty of others online. For this post, I wanted to share a few of my own, with a small twist.

Most writing prompts focus on form (and that’s great!); just for a change of pace, here are a few that focus on content instead, leaving the form part completely up to you. Maybe it’s a sonnet, or a song, or a persona poem, or an open letter, or something else; but here are a few topics I’d personally like to hear more poems about.

I am not saying that these are the only important issues of our time. I am not saying that every poet should stop what they’re doing and write about these topics right now. I am not in the business of telling people what to write about (especially since we all face different interests, pressures, and expectations). But for poets, songwriters, and other kinds of artists out there who ARE actively looking for a challenge, I’d offer these five prompts:

1. How can artists meaningfully address climate change?

This has always been something I’ve wanted to write more about; it’s just challenging. For so many of us (though not all of us, of course), climate change is an abstract issue. We know it’s important, but don’t necessarily have a personal story to share. I’m also thinking about how important it is for poems to transcend the basic “hey this is something to be aware of” stuff and really get to a call-to-action. That’s also challenging, though, since so many calls-to-action are so individual-oriented, and we know that to truly address climate change, it’s going to take more than individuals choosing to recycle, or buy an electric car. A few thoughts:

  • How do you make this issue “real” for the audience? If personal narrative isn’t an option, and speaking “for” others isn’t an option, how else can imagery, metaphor, and storytelling propel a piece of art beyond the rattling off of statistics and facts? Maybe it’s a more speculative/sci-fi approach? Maybe it’s something really left-field and outside-the-box?
  • How can a poem or song invoke a sense of urgency? How do you call the audience to action in a way that acknowledges the true scope of the problem and transcends easy, individual answers, while still energizing and mobilizing people to do something? Especially when it’s so easy to feel powerless about this issue; where might power come from?

2. How can artists meaningfully address authoritarianism and fascism?

I’d argue that this is a defining issue of this particular moment in history. Of course, the US has always had an authoritarian streak, and immigrants and Muslims have always been targeted, and racism and oppression have always been built into the foundations of this country– that’s all true. But what is also true is that the past couple years have accelerated all of this in specific and meaningful ways; the implicit is becoming explicit. The most extreme elements of the Right are emboldened. And it’s all getting worse (here’s some required reading). So what can a poem do? A few thoughts:

  • A key line in my song “Bumbling Shithead Fascists” is “the smallest act of resistance/ when the emperor is naked/ is just to say it, and say it, and say it.” I wonder, sometimes, whether part of why this stuff is hard to write about is because it’s easy to write about. Of course Trump is a disaster. Of course his administration is wrong about everything and hurting people. It can feel like a challenge to say something new or original. So maybe one writing prompt here is to write about what’s happening, without the pressure to be more radical than the last person, or more “right” than the last person. Just adding our voices to the larger chorus can be valuable– poetry as witness, poetry as journalism.
  • At the same time, of course, we want to create art that cuts through the noise, that does say something new or original. So how might we do that? Maybe it’s about political education, getting more and more people to be able to identify a fascist policy or talking point when they hear it. Maybe it’s about focus– choosing one specific element of this larger political shift and really zooming in on it, in order to comment on the bigger picture. Maybe it’s about calling people to action, highlighting specific organizations doing good work and sharing ways to support them. None of that is “easy” for poets, but I think it’s important.

3. How can artists talk about electoral politics without just sounding like shills?

The 2020 elections are going to be really, really important. I’d love to hear more poems about voting, but again– those can be challenging to write. We don’t want to write “voting is the only thing you can do to create change” poems, because that isn’t true. We don’t want to write “vote for my candidate because they’re perfect” poems, because all of the Dem 2020 candidates have major baggage, and while I know a lot of us are going to vote for whomever comes out of the primary, that’s just not a very inspiring message. So how CAN we talk about electoral stuff in a way that is artistically engaging and cool? A few thoughts:

  • A get-out-the-vote poem doesn’t have to focus on a specific candidate, and it doesn’t have to position voting as the be-all-end-all of political engagement. There are more nuanced ways to talk about all that. In this poem, Tish Jones makes some great connections; here’s what I wrote about it: “…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.”
  • Check out point #6 in this post for the smartest thing I’ve ever heard someone say about voting. There are hundreds of poems in there.

4. What does the world that we’re fighting for look like?

This could be a writing prompt on its own: describe a healthy, peaceful, just world. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What do you notice as you walk down the street? There’s also a deeper question in this prompt, though, something about the power of art to visualize movement goals before the policy/strategy language exists for them. Franny Choi’s “Field Trip to the Museum of Human History” does this. Sci-fi work from writers like NK Jemisin does this. A few thoughts:

  • That world doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can be powerful to acknowledge that a healthy, peaceful, just world isn’t necessarily a utopia– people will still struggle. But maybe there’s something about that struggle that’s different. Maybe describing paradise’s problems can give us perspective on our own.
  • A useful quote from the editors of Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of visionary fiction: “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction. Organizers and activists struggle tirelessly to create and envision another world, or many other worlds, just as science fiction does… so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than through writing original science fiction stories?”

5. How can radical, progressive, anti-authoritarian art subvert expectations? How can it be funnier, or weirder, or more adventurous?

This one is maybe a little more general. I’m just wondering about the possibilities in humor, in sci-fi and fantasy, in pushing the boundaries of how “political art” has come to be understood. Especially in slam poetry (just as an example), we all already know what a political slam poem sounds like. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, either; sometimes, the best approach is direct: the serious call-to-action, the powerful exploration of an issue. But because those expectations exist, there is opportunity in subverting them. How can the previous four points here be explored via outside-the-box, off-the-wall approaches? A few thoughts:

  • Humor is, of course, tricky. There’s a danger in making light of serious issues. I’d always recommend getting feedback on “funny” poems before sharing them with the world. But when it’s done well, it’s so powerful. I’m thinking of this “All Lives Matter” poem, or “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” or the incredible “Pigeon Man” (which, I would argue, opens with some humor but is actually not supposed to be a funny poem, even though the audience keeps laughing– again, humor can be risky).
  • It’s been useful to me to think of political art on a spectrum: on one side, there’s work that’s so blunt, so straightforward, that it’s just kind of boring. On the other side, there’s work that’s so ultra-adventurous and boundary-pushing that it’s completely opaque; if people don’t get it, they won’t be moved by it. It can be helpful to think about who the audience is for a particular piece, and what we’d like them to walk away with. But that’s a whole other post.

I hope there’s something here that can be generative or useful. This is definitely a challenge to myself, more than it is for anyone else. But please feel free to share if you end up writing something.

A few other links/resources people may be interested in:

This interview/profile by Erik Thompson (featuring this photo from Colin Michael Simmons) is a good snapshot of what I’m up to these days.

One additional shout out: if you’re interested in all that stuff that happens at the intersection of poetry, social justice, youth voice, and movement-building, I hope this is on your radar: The 2019 Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam series is happening right now, and heads into semifinals and finals next month.

Semifinals: March 9 at Metro State and March 16 at the Guthrie. Finals: March 30 at SteppingStone Theatre. All bouts start at 7pm, and they’re some of the most exciting, emotionally charged, artistically dynamic events of the year. More info will be available via TruArtSpeaks.

As far as my own work goes, you can still catch my latest album here, my book here, and videos of my poems here. Thanks for tuning in.

***UPDATE: There’s a video of me performing this poem now***

(or “what happens when you understand conflict, but don’t understand power”)

1. “I condemned the destruction of Alderaan. Then I saw the longer video in which Princess Leia says some pretty mean stuff to Grand Moff Tarkin. In this outrage culture, it’s just so easy to ignore the larger context, and I apologize.”

2. “When we focus so much on the ‘wolfman’ terrorizing our village and eating our children, it implies that all men are wolves. We need to do a better job celebrating the men who aren’t werewolves, not just condemning the ones who are.”

3. “Dolores Umbridge tortured students. That’s no excuse for disrespect.”

4. “I don’t enjoy the hunger games. I think they’re ugly, violent spectacles. I just wonder, though, in our rush to make everything more ‘politically-correct,’ whether banning them would amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

5. “I am part of the resistance inside The Nothing’s transdimensional cabal of existence-eaters.”

6. “While it’s certainly true that the phrase ‘there is no war in Ba Sing Se’ is propaganda meant to brainwash the populace into submission, one has to admit: it is peaceful here. Residents of Ba Sing Se aren’t constantly embroiled in debates about cultural appropriation or trigger warnings; it’s a place where things just work. The politics are moderate. The economy is roaring. The strangers are helpful.”

7. “This complete inability to see nuance, to put yourself in your rival’s shoes, to compromise: indeed, the people fighting the Nazgul are the real Nazgul.”

8. “I don’t agree with Thanos murdering half the universe. But does that merit harassing him in the street, calling him names, having people trying to steal his glove? Imagine this happening to someone you agree with and see how you feel. Sure, Thanos is evil; but the Avengers are no angels themselves.”

9. “Who among us hasn’t, as an unruly youth, wiped out a village of Tusken raiders, or killed a few younglings while in the throes of teenage angst? Let boys be boys.”

10. “Count Dracula may be a blood-drinking murderer, but when these liberal college students pressure their universities to not invite him to campus for paid speaking engagements, they’re committing a different sort of murder– the murder of our first amendment rights. Now, I’m no expert, I don’t have any ‘qualifications’ that merit a regular column read by millions of people, but I do know this: as my body is devoured by a swarm of giant bats, my last thought will be one word: civility, civility, civility.

(if this post doesn’t make a lot of sense, here. are. three. pieces with some background)

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.