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.”

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:

“Right now, I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire.” –Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

With more and more discourse lately (online and in real life) about how corrupt and out-of-touch the super-rich are, I wanted to share a few thoughts and links related to this song. “You Say ‘Millionaire’ Like It’s A Good Thing” has been around for a few years– the original version of the song is available here, and the lyrics are included in my book. This remix, courtesy of Big Cats, is the song’s Final Form– a lean, focused burst of venom directed at the rich.

As a writer and as an activist, I’m really interested in the power of language to reframe issues. It’s important to write songs and poems that describe poverty, that tell our stories, and that call us to action toward economic justice; this song, however, was an attempt to do something a little more specific: to reframe the accumulation of wealth as something that is not just “an unfortunate side effect of the system,” but rather as something that is *morally* reprehensible.

There are caveats; I’m reminded of Jay-Z’s “If you grew up with holes in your zapatos/ you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.” The argument here isn’t that all rich people are “bad” on an individual level (although many absolutely are!); it’s that a system that makes it possible for the distribution of wealth to be so extremely, so obscenely skewed is flat-out wrong. It is directly responsible for the death and suffering of too many people.

And sure, we can have conversations about how wealth is relative, how even working class people in the US “have it better” than x, y, or z other group… but that’s part of the point of the song too– there’s a point where that relativity fails. Maybe it’s not at a million dollars exactly; but somewhere on the wealth spectrum, earning becomes hoarding. Need becomes greed. Here are some articles that go more in-depth; I hope they can be useful, especially as so many of us are watching the 2020 candidates navigate this issue:

Christopher Ingraham: “Wealth concentration returning to ‘levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ according to new research” (Washington Post): “American wealth is highly unevenly distributed, much more so than income. According to Zucman’s latest calculations, today the top 0.1 percent of the population has captured nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth, giving them a greater slice of the American pie than the bottom 80 percent of the population combined.”

Farhad Manjoo: “Abolish Billionaires” (NYT): “But the adulation we heap upon billionaires obscures the plain moral quandary at the center of their wealth: Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?”

Sophie Weiner: “AOC: A Society With Billionaires Cannot Be Moral” (Splinter): “‘The question of marginal tax rates is a policy question but it’s also a moral question,’ Ocasio-Cortez said. ‘What kind of society do we want to live in? Are we comfortable with a society where someone can have a personal helipad while this city is experiencing the highest levels of poverty and homelessness since the Great Depression?'”

A.Q. Smith: “It’s Basically Just Immoral To Be Rich” (Current Affairs): “It is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.”

Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark: “Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that.” (Washington Post): “As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can.”

Emmie Martin: “Here’s how much money you need to be happy, according to a new analysis by wealth experts” (CNBC): “‘The lower a person’s annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don’t report any greater degree of happiness,’ Time reported in 2010, citing a study from Princeton University conducted by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman.”

Jesus, in the Bible: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

“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.

“From the stage, you can’t see the hyenas; but you can hear them barking. Your job is to be meat dangling, to tease out the barking…”

I’m highlighting some older poems that are personal favorites of mine; 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.

There are two things on my mind right now. First, this poem has been a favorite of mine for years, and it’s always fun to share great poems with people. Second, I get a lot of messages from poets asking for feedback on their work, and I think this poem kind of crystallizes at least some of the feedback I end up giving to 99% of people. And with Button Poetry’s chapbook contest now open, I wanted to share a couple of observations that might be useful to aspiring/emerging poets out there.

To be clear, these aren’t rules, or some kind of step-by-step guide to writing good poetry; these are just things that I notice in THIS poem that I carry with me into my own writing.

1. The very first line of this poem is an image. It’s not a “here’s what I think” statement or some abstract, philosophical pondering about the universe. It’s “there’s a dark club, full of hyenas, barking at an empty stage.” You can see it. You can hear it. You can smell it. Right away. And look: a poem doesn’t have to start with an image; that’s not a rule. But for me, as a reader/listener, it’s one of the most basic things a writer can do to capture my attention. It’s also one of the most basic things that a whole lot of aspiring poets don’t do.

2. The poem is made up of stories. There’s some really powerful connective tissue in the poem, but the “bones” of the poem (as I see it) are small stories, anecdotes, moments, and memories. Again, there’s no rule that says that “good” poetry has to have a narrative element– it doesn’t. But stories are powerful. Both in terms of grabbing the audience’s attention and communicating something deep via images. Some poems are built around one story; this one uses a bunch of little stories to paint an impressionistic picture of the deeper truth the poem is trying to point toward.

3. The poem is emotional and personal without being strictly autobiographical. I want to be careful here: I’m not saying that autobiographical or confessional poetry is bad– it has the potential to be just as good or bad as any other kind of poetry. I’m just excited by poems that can be this honest, and create this kind of emotional energy, via other avenues; I think that’s a useful tool/approach, especially for those of us who maybe don’t want to write directly and explicitly about our real-life trauma. To use myself as an example, I’ve often said that this is my most personal poem, even though it’s obviously not a true story. I think part of poetry is being able to make connections, to juxtapose stories and create dialogue between the personal, the universal, and the space in between.

4. On a delivery level, it’s straightforward without being dull, and theatrical without being T H E A T R I C A L. Of course, other listeners can disagree with me, but I love how this poem is performed. Spoken word’s connection to theater sometimes manifests as pure leave-it-all-on-the-stage volume, or melodrama (both of which I’ve been guilty of). But there are moments in this performance that are just chilling; the conversational/understated delivery really propels a deep emotional intensity. I know this point may be less relevant to people preparing their manuscripts, but it’s maybe worth thinking about how that dynamic lives in our writing too, and not just in performance.

5. This poem has a strong hook. I’ve written about hooks before, but the basic idea, for me, is that the hook is the concept, the organizing principle of the poem. It’s what makes a poem stand out– whether that means stand out from all poems in general, or stand out from poems that tackle the same subject matter. This poem has a laser-specific topic and knows what it wants to say about that topic. There aren’t a dozen other poems about the same thing that I can pull up on YouTube right now. A strong hook doesn’t necessarily make a poem good, but it very often makes it more memorable.

6. Finally, I think one of the functions of poetry is to recontextualize, especially things we think we already understand, and this poem is a devastating example of that. The stories about famous comedians aren’t just random factoids; they build upon each other, supporting the thesis of the poem indirectly, until that thesis is made explicit in the famous (well, famous in the circles I run in, haha) line playing with the word “spite.” The poem has levels too: even if it were just literally about the idea that comedians sometimes pull their material from dark places/experiences, it’d be powerful; but I’d argue that it taps into something more universal about the nature of the relationship between spite and survival, something so many artists– and hell, non-artists too– can relate to.

So again, just a few things I notice in this poem; I hope they can be useful to any of you prepping chapbook submissions.

More:

Text is below; click for a downloadable/foldable PDF

A big part of the work that I do is traveling to colleges and high schools to talk about consent and gender violence prevention. For me, though, that conversation can’t just be about prevention on an individual, “being a better person” level. Of course, that’s an important part of it. But when we talk about sexual assault, we’re not just talking about individual perpetrators, individual survivors, and individual bystanders– we’re talking about a culture. How do we shift culture?

An activity that we often do is to put up three big sheets of paper, and ask the question: HOW DO WE BUILD A CULTURE OF CONSENT? One sheet is for things we can do as individuals, on our own. One is for things we can do in community, with our friends, family, and peers. One is for things we can do to shift policy in a larger-scale, sustainable way. You may recognize this framework from my other zine.

The idea is that the activity becomes a visualization of action ideas– it’s big, messy, and includes steps that experienced organizers can take right next to steps that someone who is having this conversation for the very first time can take. It shows that we have agency. We have power.

For this new zine, I wanted to share some of the results of this activity, some of the action ideas that thousands of students, survivors, advocates, and organizers across the country shared. It’s short, of course, but can hopefully spark some conversations, and some action. Please feel free to share, or even to download and print/fold some zines yourself (here are cutting/folding directions). Full text here:

What Is Consent?

“Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.” (Project Respect)

“[Affirmative consent is]” “Informed, freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity that is expressed by clear and unambiguous words or actions.” (The Aurora Center)

“The idea of enthusiastic consent is quite simple. In a nutshell, it advocates for enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement.” (Persephone Magazine)

Consent is… (via Planned Parenthood)

  • Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re both naked in bed.
  • Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.
  • Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.
  • Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex).

Practicing consent is vital, but ending sexual assault will take more than our just being better individuals. So how do we BUILD a culture of consent? This document shares a few ideas pulled from conversations with advocates, activists, students, and survivors around the US:

As Individuals, We Can Level Up

Learn more about these issues via books (check out the last section below for some recommendations), articles, podcasts, classes, and more.

Especially for men: “unlearning” some of what we’re taught about masculinity and sex can be necessary.

Get plugged in: do a quick online search to find local and/or national organizations (or individuals) doing work to support survivors and end rape culture, and join their email lists, follow them on social media, or attend their events. I list a few examples in the “resources” section below.

Practice consent in your relationships: Be present. Communicate, listen, and ask questions. This video has more.

It isn’t just about sex; practice consent in other areas of your life too: ask before giving someone a hug, taking their picture, etc. Let children know that they can always say “no” to tickling, kisses, etc.

Understand consent beyond the “dominant narrative.” Consent matters in same-sex relationships, for people outside the gender binary, and beyond. While most perpetrators of sexual assault are men, men can also be victim/survivors.

Believe survivors. Listen to survivors. Center survivors.

In Community, We Can Step Up

Dialogue. Join a book club or discussion circle where people can meet up, share their experiences, and build community with one another. If you’re a student, take classes that explore these issues.

Speak out. Post links to good articles or videos on social media. Write blog posts and letters-to-the-editor.

Challenge the myths. From the prevalence of false accusations, to the idea that “boys will be boys,” to all kinds of victim-blaming nonsense: learn to spot these myths, and how to dismantle them.

Especially for men: bring these conversations into spaces where they aren’t already happening. Refuse to laugh at sexist or violent jokes. Call people out. Support survivors. Don’t just “be” a good guy, put your values and principles into action.

Support survivors. For a great list of “dos” and “don’ts,” check out “Supporting a Survivor: The Basics” at www.knowyourix.org.

Create art. Broadcast. Plant seeds. Whatever platform you have access to, no one else has that same access. For example, here’s a list of poems about consent and healthy sexuality.

Remember that it’s not just about perpetrators and victims. We can all disrupt harmful– or potentially harmful– situations. Whether you’re at a party and you witness someone trying to take advantage of someone else, or you’re on the bus and someone is being harassed, or you’re just on the internet and someone is saying harmful things, the classic “bystander intervention” approach highlights three tactics:

  • Disrupt: Sometimes, the best move is just to step up, be direct, and call people out.
  • Distract: If you feel like the direct approach might not work, you can still disrupt the situation in a more indirect way– starting a conversation about something unrelated, spilling a drink on someone, etc.
  • Delegate: If your safety is an issue, or you just don’t feel equipped to do one of the first two points, another option is to get help– find friends or allies who can back you up, or take over themselves. Sometimes, this can involve going to authorities, but remember that not everyone feels–or is– safer when police are involved. Center the person in need.

On that last note, I’d also recommend this video, and this article, which both acknowledge the power of the bystander intervention approach while sharing some necessary critiques; a quote from the latter:

Maybe bystander intervention can be radically re-imagined, not as momentary interference in “isolated” instances of violence but as a consistent, collective effort at victim-centered justice, accountability, and support, one that extends long before and long after any particular “incident” of violence.

(source)

To Shift Policy and Culture, We Can Show Up

Show up. Find organizations doing work to support survivors and cultivate a culture of consent, and support them via donations, signal-boosting, volunteering, organizing fundraiser events, or joining them– you can become an advocate too. Of course, not everyone can “show up” in the same ways. That’s okay. No single individual has to do every thing here. But we can all do something.

Vote for candidates who share your values on these issues. Advocate for them. Volunteer for their campaigns. Get better people into positions of power. Voting alone won’t solve this problem, but it can help set the stage for future work.

If you’re a student, meet up with your advisor to find some classes that might put you on a career path to do this work for a living.

Make sure your business, school, organization, or other institution has effective protocols in place for holding those who commit sexual harassment or assault accountable.

Organize! Here are some specific policies that people around the country have fought for and won:

  • Campus affirmative consent policies.
  • K-12 consent education.
  • Comprehensive sexual education in schools.
  • More engaging, more critical, more effective consent ed content in first-year orientation programs.
  • Funding for survivor advocacy organizations and/or student groups that work on these issues.
  • Resources for holding perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault accountable outside of the criminal justice system, like community-centered transformative justice practices.

A FEW RESOURCES:
A few organizations (among many):

And a few suggested readings:

  • “Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape” (Friedman and Valenti)
  • “Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” (ed. Gay)
  • “Ask: Building Consent Culture” (ed. Stryker)
  • “Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement” (ed. Patterson)
  • “The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses” (Documentary and Book)
  • “The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” (Deer)
  • “Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It” (Harding)
  • “Not On My Watch: A Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence” (Rotman)
  • “Know My Name” (Miller)

Obviously, there are many more. With the format I’m using for this, space is limited. On here, however, I’d also point people to this list of poems (plus links/readings) dealing with these issues that may be useful as conversation starters or teaching tools. Feel free to add more in the comments.

“Vote. Because this system should serve more than those who clutch dead ideals and documents drenched in dust; it should serve us”

I’m highlighting some older poems that are personal favorites of mine; 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.

This month, I wanted to share this Tish Jones poem (via TakeAction MN, shot by Line Break Media, featuring music by Big Cats too!) for three reasons:

1. First, Tish is the Executive Director of TruArtSpeaks, an organization I just donated $1000 to, because I’ve seen firsthand how powerful and vital their work is. There are just a few days left to reach this year’s $10k fundraising goal, so PLEASE consider joining me in powering that work.

2. Second, this is a poem about the importance of voting. I write something about voting pretty much every year, and have a post coming with more thoughts and resources related to that. For now, though, I think this poem is a great reminder for those of us (especially those of us who CAN vote) who aren’t already plugged in to plug the hell in. Schedule time to do it. Ask questions and gather resources if you need to. Find local organizations like TakeAction MN and dive in, volunteer for campaigns, have a plan.

In the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation, people are hurting, and angry, and sad. That’s all valid. Voting absolutely isn’t the only thing we can do. But it is one concrete action that can contribute to the larger movement-building work that needs to happen. Again, I’ll be sharing more links and resources later this month. Oh also note, that this video is from 2014, and election day THIS year is not 11/4– it’s 11/6.

3. Finally, on a form level, this is a great poem to analyze in the context of the question: how do we effectively construct calls-to-action in poems? I just had a great workshop/conversation with some poets over at Macalester College where we discussed this, and it’s a question that I am personally invested in asking wherever I go, especially when working with other poets. It is skill to be able to write a poem that isn’t just “right” or “compelling” about whatever topic it’s exploring, but has some kind of concrete action to share with its audience. It’s hard to do well. It’s easy to be corny, or preachy, or just not very interesting.

I think this poem succeeds for a few reasons:

  • The poem knows what it is. I get a very clear sense of who Tish is and what she values, as well as who the target audience of the poem is.
  • On a craft level, there’s a lot of attention paid to sonic elements like assonance, alliteration, repetition and rhyme. It works as a poem first. Especially with the first point here in mind, it’s engaging in terms of how it flows and choices made around sound.
  • It’s short. Brevity matters in general, but especially for this kind of poem, it can’t drag on for five minutes. Make it punchy. Make your point and bounce.
  • The poem uses juxtaposition in a subtle but powerful way– large and small, ancestors and future generations, the powers-that-be and the power we have access to– all of these frameworks and set up in an intentional way that flows into the larger statement that the poem is making.
  • On a content level, 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. The poem does a lot of work in just a minute-and-a-half.
One of the central questions we ask in these conversations about anthems and calls-to-action is about whether the poem that wins a poetry slam, or goes viral on the internet, can also be performed at a rally. Or a fundraiser. Or an improvised protest. The answer is very often no, because those kinds of poems require an approach that we don’t always learn– whether we come from the MFA world or the slam poetry world. It is possible to write those poems, though, as Tish demonstrates here. It is also necessary, especially in this historical moment.

Further Reading:

  • Find more from Tish Jones (and book her for your college, conference, etc.) here.
  • Find more about TruArtSpeaks on all social media: @TruArtSpeaks
  • Find a full list of my poem commentary/analysis essays here.