Image: Thanos’ empty armor being used as a scarecrow

I’m supposed to be working on poems for my new book; I wrote this instead.

In the Marvel cinematic universe, costumed superheroes battle an assortment of global threats: Loki invades Earth with an extraterrestrial army. Ultron threatens to replace humanity with artificial intelligence. The forces of Hydra infiltrate the governments of the world and seek to bring them down from the inside.

But the ultimate villain, the larger threat looming over the more than twenty films leading up to the MCU’s climax, is Thanos. A being of unfathomable power, Thanos is also an antagonist with a specific philosophy. He believes that the problem with the universe is too much life, too many mouths to feed, too great a strain on finite resources. So his solution, his goal, is to wipe out half of all life in the universe; he believes that by doing this, the remaining half will thrive.

In these films, it is taken for granted that Thanos is the villain, and that his plan is as nonsensical as it is horrific. In the real world, however, his general philosophy – that there are too many people, that we’re going to run out of food and resources unless we control the population – is something that a lot of people (including mass murderers in El Paso and Christchurch) actually believe. Whether we call it Neo-Malthusianism or eco-fascism or whatever fancy name, it very often goes hand in hand with anti-immigrant bigotry, yellow peril xenophobia, and a sociopathic focus on rugged individualism over community, empathy, and cooperation. Pandemics make it worse.

Over the coming years, we’re going to see more of this. So here are three frames, metaphors, and counter-arguments that have been useful to me. Hopefully they can be useful to you, as well.

1. If there are a hundred people, and a hundred apples, and one person has 90 apples, and the other 99 people have to share ten apples – the problem is not that there are too many people.

The eco-fascists will tell you that there aren’t enough apples, but the truth is that as a species, we have all the resources we need, right now, to make sure every person on earth has food, shelter and access to a healthy life. The problem is that we spend billions of dollars on F-35s and stealth bombers, while propping up a system that allows a tiny minority of people to hoard unfathomable amounts of wealth that they couldn’t spend in a hundred lifetimes. The issue isn’t scarcity of resources; the issue is the system we use to distribute those resources.

2. If a pandemic comes along and kills a few million humans, disproportionately affecting the elderly, the poor, the vulnerable – refugees, prisoners, people without access to health care – that is not “the ecosystem resetting itself.” That is not “mother earth fighting back.”

I know it can sound like a cool, edgy hot-take to be like “humanity… is the real virus,” but my nieces and nephews are not viruses. My friends who are nurses and advocates and educators and working-class people just trying to live are not the problem. “Humanity,” as a general concept, is not to blame for the climate crisis. A handful of obscenely wealthy capitalists and the multi-billion dollar extractive industries they control are to blame for the climate crisis.

And while it can be annoying when some hippie on Twitter says stuff like that, it’s important to understand how that rhetoric connects to xenophobia and racism. As Trump and his supporters start calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or the “kung-flu,” we have to remember how historically, anxiety about overpopulation and disease has led to crackdowns on those labeled “other,” whether immigrants, religious minorities, or whatever scapegoat those in power wish to use to distract from their own incompetence. Today, we’re already seeing hate crimes targeting Asians and Asian-Americans. We must have zero tolerance for this.

Sidebar: two important links for people who might find themselves in arguments about this: The World Health Organization’s explicit recommendation to NOT name diseases after places or people and a news story with proof that Trump and/or his speechwriters are going out of their way to change the name from what is recommended to what benefits them politically. It’s sick.

3. As a purely intellectual exercise, the idea of 100 people on a sinking ship and only ten being able to fit on the lifeboat might lead you to some “harsh but fair” conclusions. In reality, though, we have more choices beyond “most people die” and “everyone dies.”

To continue this metaphor, we could bring more lifeboats on the ship. Stepping back, we could design the ship to more elegantly fit additional lifeboats, and/or be more resistant to sinking in the first place. Stepping back further, we could institute regulations on the shipbuilding industry that mandate that ships must have enough lifeboats for all passengers. 

Outside of this hypothetical, it’s worth remembering that in real life, who do you think is most likely to have access to a “lifeboat?” The rich, the privileged, and the powerful have a vested interest in making the rest of us think that there aren’t enough resources to go around, because that minimizes pressure on them to share what they see as theirs alone.

***

To return to the MCU: using the infinity gauntlet, Thanos became effectively omnipotent. If he truly cared about making sure there were enough resources to go around, rather than wiping out half of all life in the universe, he could have snapped his fingers and created more resources, or ensured that humans and aliens across the universe distributed those resources in a better way.

The fact that his “solution,” seemingly the first and only course of action he considered, was to murder half of all life tells us a lot more about him than it does about the issues he claimed to be concerned about.

Of course, Thanos isn’t real. But his philosophy is. Watch out for those whose imaginations are big enough to envision millions dying in a pandemic, but aren’t big enough to envision a more just, equitable system that would allow all of humanity to thrive. It’s on us to dream bigger, to work together, and to save ourselves. Nothing is inevitable.

FURTHER RESOURCES:

A good document pulling together some links and “how-to” resources on mutual aid and pod-mapping; basically, how we can support one another, in our communities, through the COVID-19 situation.

Additionally, a few thoughts of my own I posted on social media a couple days ago:

A million links to share, but to avoid stressing people out, here’s a brief summary of what I’ve been reading regarding covid-19; shared this the other day, but a few edits:

First, let’s remember that there’s a lot of room between “everything is fine” and “it’s the apocalypse.” Don’t panic, but please take it seriously: lives are very much at stake, especially older people, people with compromised immune systems, and frontline health care workers, and those people matter.

I’m thankful for everyone pointing out how, like a lot of big problems, the covid-19 pandemic requires solutions at both individual and institutional levels.

As individuals: there’s been a ton of good writing, articles, resources, etc. on specific things we can do: take extra care to wash hands, avoid unnecessary travel and gatherings, cancel events, offer to get groceries/supplies to people who might be more at risk, go out less, etc. This can make a real difference.

Also important: read credible sources; don’t fall for conspiracy theories, or racism (watch GOP politicians pivot to calling it “the chinese virus” or whatever), or facebook-style “I don’t know anything but I’m going to authoritatively state that this isn’t a big deal and it’s exactly like the common flu.” It’s not.

On the institutional level, we always hear calls not to “politicize” crises like this. But this crisis is political.

When people don’t have paid sick leave, they work sick, and that makes things worse– and that’s politics. When the Trump administration eliminates the position of “senior director for global health security and biodefense,” that’s politics. When millions of people don’t have health insurance, so don’t seek out the care they need, that’s politics.

So yeah, we can physically avoid one another for a while, while simultaneously committing to uniting together to tackle these underlying issues. This crisis will pass, but these bigger problems will ensure that another crisis won’t be far behind… unless we act- voting, organizing, mutual aid, everything.

I live in Minnesota, and it’s a Super Tuesday state. So pretty soon, I’ll be voting for which Democratic nominee I’d like to go up against Trump in November.

For me, it’s only a conversation about Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I have no interest in the other candidates. That isn’t to say I absolutely wouldn’t vote for (for example) Biden if he wins the primary; it’s just to say that in the primary, I will be voting for a progressive.

I’ll keep this brief and straightforward: Between Sanders and Warren, I’m going with Sanders. Below, I’m going to share some of my thought process. I’m not sharing this because I’m any kind of expert or authority; I just think it’s a good practice to talk out why we’re supporting who we’re supporting. If this can be useful to anyone else who’s trying to decide, great.

I think both Sanders and Warren have good platforms (at least relative to other candidates, past and present), and I even prefer a couple of Warren’s specific policies. But in general, just reading through their websites and doing the math, I align more with Sanders. But policy isn’t my main argument here. Platforms shift, especially as a candidate moves from the primary into the general. No matter who the candidate is, it’s going to be on us to hold them accountable. It’s going to be the movement-builders who apply pressure to those platforms and drive change.

So I’m MOST interested in what the movement-builders are saying.

Both Warren and Sanders have a bunch of great endorsements from individual politicians. Where Sanders pulls ahead, for me at least, is in endorsements from activist organizations (and unions!) on the ground, doing movement-building work every day. Don’t just listen to me, read these endorsements from some of the most inspiring organizations in the country:

  • Sunrise Movement
    We know that no matter who the next President is, we will need to turn millions of people into the streets and disrupt business as usual in order to win a Green New Deal. But our movement has spoken clearly. We believe a Bernie Sanders Presidency would provide the best political terrain in which to engage in and ultimately win that struggle for the world we deserve.
  • Mijente
    We need urgent change on a whole host of issues – climate change, deportations, education, health care. To get that change, first things first, we gotta get Donald Trump out and make him a one term president. We need a candidate who can assemble a vibrant, diverse coalition that presents a clear alternative. Today it’s official – we believe that candidate is Senator Bernie Sanders.
  • Dream Defenders
    Bernie is not our political savior. It is the movement behind him that will change this country: We are not electing a savior, we are electing a political opponent who we will hold accountable to meet our demands. Bernie Sanders knows he can’t change everything on his own. His campaign slogan, “Not Me, Us” is all about building a movement of millions to fight in the streets and at the ballot box to force the hands of legislators to listen. This is how change happens.
  • Democratic Socialists of America
    When Bernie says “not me, us,” he’s talking about an urgent political project: building a mass movement of working people that can change society. We’ll start with Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, powerful trade unions, tuition-free college, and an end to mass incarceration – but we won’t stop there.
  • TakeAction Minnesota
    “Bernie Sanders is the clear choice,” said Mai Chong Xiong, Board Chair of TakeAction Minnesota. “Bernie has built a bold, powerful movement because he listens to the people and knows our power. When working people organize and rise up together, we win elections and build a democracy, government and economy that works for all of us. The momentum keeps growing because families, communities, and climate can’t wait for action. We are ready to get to work.”
  • Make the Road Action
    Daniel Altschuler, managing director of Make the Road Action, said that the organization has been impressed by Sanders’s willingness to listen and learn from the grassroots advocacy community in putting together an immigration platform that reflects their priorities, including placing a moratorium on deportations and dismantling the immigration enforcement agencies. (source)
  • People’s Action
    “We know that Bernie will stand with the multiracial working class because he has always stood with us,” People’s Action National Board of Directors President Lizeth Chacon said. “He’s proven that he can listen and work with the grassroots when it’s time to be bolder. When we launched a call for safe, accessible, sustainable, permanently affordable homes for everyone, Sanders heard our blunt call for action. Now the vision of our Homes Guarantee is reflected in his housing policy. That’s just one example of him making movement politics mainstream.”

I was originally going to share a deeper dive into my own thoughts on policy, but I think these endorsements are both more important, and more persuasive.

And it’s not just about the endorsements themselves; look closely at what they’re saying. There’s so much language in those statements that explicitly recognizes that real change isn’t driven by individual politicians. It’s driven by movements, and the Sanders campaign is uniquely, at least in my experience, in conversation with the movement work happening outside the election. One last link: check out Boots Riley’s thoughts on that dynamic.

A Note on “Electability”
That word is in quotes for a reason. It’s not that electability isn’t real, or that it doesn’t matter; it’s that pundits and talking heads (and, let’s be honest, most of us) aren’t always very good at predicting who’s electable and who isn’t.

The last two presidents of the US are a bumbling fascist conman named Donald Trump and a progressive (at least in rhetoric) Black man named Barack Hussein Obama. Neither were ever considered “electable.” Go back and read the op-eds, or listen to the clips of “experts” on cable news, in 2008 and 2016. At the end of the day, “electability” can only be measured in winning elections.

And Sanders is winning right now. At the head of a movement that includes the most diverse base in the primary, the most youth, and the most straight up VOTES, he’s the frontrunner, and best-positioned, right now, to take on Donald Trump in November.

And yes, Bernie Sanders will face negative ads, like every candidate. They’ll say he’s a communist, that he’ll destroy the economy. But that’s the work: if people are nervous about democratic socialism, or overhauling the healthcare system, or the Green New Deal, it’s on us to take that opportunity to have a real conversation about those issues- a conversation that can lead to action no matter who sits in the White House.

They’ll say he’s too radical. It’s on us to talk about how often popular, commonsense policy positions get framed as “radical.” Health care is a human right. The climate crisis is real. No one should have a billion dollars while children go hungry and families struggle to get by. If these statements are “radical,” then it is PAST time for more radical politics.

It’s on us to make the case. It’s on us to make connections. It’s also on us to hold each other accountable — as Sanders himself has — when we witness harassment or the kind of toxic behavior that has become associated with his campaign (whether we believe that association is fair or not; in politics, the perception of a problem is a problem).

Electability isn’t some inherent quality that an individual just “has” or not; it’s something we create, through our advocacy, our volunteering, and our votes. We have agency. We can get involved and help push for real change- both inside AND outside of electoral politics.

If you already agree with me, be sure to check out opportunities wherever you live to get involved, to do some door-knocking, or even just to donate.

If you’re looking for more information in a general sense about the primary, a good resource is Vote Save America, with a guide on how to register, the whole voting process, and how to get involved.

Related: a few expanded thoughts on voting in general, and how it can fit into a movement-building strategy without *becoming* the strategy.

Confederate statue in Durham torn down; image from here.

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.

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-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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

I hope this list 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.

For teachers, student affairs folks, social justice activists, and beyond: this is a playlist of 30 poems that have been useful to me in classrooms, facilitated discussions, and other educational spaces.

It’s not a list of the “best” poems ever, or the only poems about these various topics; but there is some really powerful work here, work that meaningfully engages with these issues and can serve as great entry points or dialogue-starters. If you’re a teacher, another kind of educator, or just a person who understands the power of art, story, and conversation, I hope you find something to use here.

Of course, be sure to review the poems yourself first, since not every poem is going to be relevant or appropriate for every audience. Aside from these 30 poems, though, I hope people can fall down rabbit holes finding more work from these poets and these channels.

Additional lists and resources:

Also wanted to share this piece that’s been on my mind a lot this summer, as I get ready to hit the road again this fall: Towards an Antifascist Pedagogy by Guy Emerson Mount. A relevant quote for educators, poets, and everyone: “Following Davis and Robeson, the first rule of an anti-fascist pedagogy then is to refuse to continue with ‘business as usual’ and recognize that the anti-fascist battleground is everywhere.”

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!

Image via Repeal Hyde Art Project

One of my all-time favorite tweets is this one from Mariame Kaba:

Questions I regularly ask myself when I’m outraged about injustice:
1. What resources exist so I can better educate myself?
2. Who’s already doing work around this injustice?
3. Do I have the capacity to offer concrete support & help to them?
4. How can I be constructive?

It’s interesting, to me at least, how much these questions line up with questions I ask myself about my own arts practice. Especially that last one: as a poet, I don’t think my job is to write the “best” poem; it is to be constructive. To be useful. To offer something. Same with this blog: I don’t write a lot of rabblerousing thinkpieces these days; I just want to share links and resources that have been useful to me, especially ones that point to specific, concrete actions (see more here and here).

And while those questions can be applied to any issue, I find them especially helpful when it comes to issues for which there isn’t one big, obvious solution. With abortion access under attack (and for some of us, in states in which we do not live), it can feel overwhelming. I’m still trying to figure out how that poem (or poems) will work; I don’t have a dramatic personal story to share here. What I do have, in the meantime, are some thoughts, links, and resources that have helped me wrap my head around this; here’s what I shared on social media:

~~~

I’m grateful for people in my life who have taught me the importance of looking at an issue, while also looking at everything going on *around* that issue. For example:

It is not a coincidence that the loudest “pro-life” voices are also the loudest anti-sex education, anti-social safety net, anti-access to childcare, anti-access to contraception, anti-living wage, anti-environment, anti-peace, anti-democracy, anti-healthcare voices.

If you truly believe abortion is wrong (I don’t, for the record, but know that my words probably aren’t going to convince anyone who does), there are many more effective ways to lower abortion rates than outlawing it. But the “pro-life” movement actively works against things like comprehensive sex ed and universal access to birth control– and that’s a tell.

The “pro-life” movement has never been about life; it has always been about control.

It has always been about enforcing a very specific view of family, sexuality, and authority, and punishing women (and anyone who can have children; here’s a good link on why it’s so important to include trans and nonbinary people in this conversation) for daring to think differently.

It has always been about cynically using people’s deeply-held beliefs as a way to get-out-the-vote to keep the most immoral, manipulative, authoritarian politicians we have in power.

I don’t believe in reproductive justice just because of the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement, and I don’t believe that pointing out that hypocrisy will really do anything to change them. But if there are people out there on the fence about this, I hope this is some food for thought. It’s one thing to have a personal position on this issue; it’s something else to support the right-wing political machine that exploits those personal positions and legitimately hurts people– including children– in the process.

And for people who already agree, another thing that I’m grateful to have learned is that even when there isn’t one magic way to “fix” things, there are always things we can do:

  • DONATE to abortion funds like Yellowhammer and the NNAF, as well as local ones like Our Justice; plus Planned Parenthood, NARAL, etc. wherever you’re at. If you’re able, consider a regular/monthly donation.
  • SUPPORT grassroots organizations doing reproductive justice work (especially in states most affected by these bans) like Sister Song and Spark RJ.
  • SHOW UP to actions organized by those groups. Join organizing efforts if you are able; for example, here’s a “cheat sheet for protecting access” that may be useful for people looking for actions to take right now.
  • COMMIT to voting, but also to engaging with elections, especially local elections, in a deeper way. Make demands. Make politicians earn your vote, and volunteer/campaign for the ones who do.
  • LEARN more about reproductive justice. A few intro links here, here, and here. I’d also shout out “Handbook for a Post-Roe America” and this powerful new NYT op-ed from Michelle Alexander.
  • SHIFT the culture by sharing informative links and stories, speaking up, and having conversations with people in your life, especially if you’re not directly affected by these bans. Find ways to support this work via other issues that are linked: advocating for comprehensive sex education, for example.
  • LISTEN to the activists on the ground (not celebrities, not politicians, not me) when the time comes for direct action or other tactics. All those organizations I mentioned? Follow them on social media and/or sign up for their email lists. Find other organizations or activists to listen to; if you care about this issue, “begin with research,” as RLM says.

I hope something in there can be useful and/or mobilizing. Feel free to share; feel free to add more thoughts in the comments. Check out this fantastic Twitter thread (which starts with the tweet at the very top of this post) too.

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: