I’m excited to share the first installment of what I hope to grow into a SERIES of conversations with other artists. The idea is that this kind of “dual interview” format might allow us to dig a little deeper into questions of craft and “the work” of our work, and just be a fun way to connect.
Ollie’s work is incredible, and I’m super grateful that they agreed to do this (and create the pullquote graphics sprinkled throughout); my initial thought was that these would be relatively short, but of course we ended up with… a lot. But this whole conversation is so good, and I hope aspiring/emerging writers, poets, and/or just people interested in our work can find something useful in it.
Get Ollie’s book, Dead Dad Jokes, here. Get my book, Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough, here.
We’re having a free, virtual launch performance for the new book on Tuesday, April 12, 2022, at 7pm Central. This post is collecting some of stuff that I’ll likely be talking about, so they can all be in one place instead of a dozen different links.
This page also doubles as a good “how to support the book” page for people who want to; that is very much appreciated!
To celebrate RELEASE DAY, Button Poetry posted one of my favorite poems from the new book!
I think a lot about context and audience, about how a poem “lives” in the world, and this piece is really about leaning into that: it’s literally a poem that I hope can be useful for both teachers and students on the first day of the poetry unit in language arts class, haha. Beyond that very practical, down-to-earth function, I hope the poem also speaks to the deeper importance of expression, telling our stories, and building community with one another.
This is a special preview chapter from my book, Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough. The book is more-or-less a poetry book, but it’s written from the perspective of various characters; sometimes, those characters do other things beyond writing and performing poems—they have conversations, get into arguments, tell stories, and participate in panel discussions. Since Button will be posting a bunch of poems/videos from the book (like this one) over the next few months, I figured I’d share one of these non-poem pieces here.
In this excerpt, the robot poet Gyre has been invited to be part of a panel discussion; Gyre doesn’t want to, though, so makes their apprentice Nary do it instead.
The Role of the Artist in Times of Authoritarian Brutality: A Panel Discussion
The Great Hall of Castle Whitecap, temporary host of the Floating University, the largest and onlyest center of learning outside of Heart. Our cast is seated on a bench behind a long, elevated table at the front of the room; students, faculty, and staff haphazardly occupy some 30-40 of the 200 rickety wooden chairs below. An owl tries to sleep in the rafters of the impressive, if not a bit ostentatious, hall.
Moderator: Welcome, students, faculty, and staff of the Floating University. We have some very special guests with us today for this important conversation. As many of you know, the council of Heart has been moving further and further away from the principles set into place by Hen March and the First Congress all those years ago. From the increase in propaganda, to the expanded role of the guard corps, to the ongoing saber rattling between districts—our society would be nigh-unrecognizable to March, were she still with us today. We are here today to discuss what artists can do in response to this reality. Allow me to introduce our panel.
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.
There are a million other articles and resources I could share here, but from personal experience: this one has been really useful. It’s a Time Magazine feature looking at the literal faces of the people in positions of power in the US; great tool for conceptualizing white supremacy not just as “bad white people doing bad things,” but as a larger system of domination. Especially for students who bring up the “but white men are the NEW oppressed minority” talking point.
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.
This poem uses humor to open up space for a powerful critique for the very common idea that “not seeing color” is the answer to racism. “You want to strip me clean; bleach away the parts of me that make you uncomfortable… when you say ‘colorblind,’ you are asking me to forget.”
Storytelling can communicate information in ways that facts and statistics can’t. In this poem/TEDx Talk, Jared Paul simply tells five stories from his life that illustrate how whiteness works in context, even for people who would not consider themselves privileged.
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.
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.
This poem is warm, funny, and approachable, using empathy-generating personal stories to make a larger point about xenophobia, the refugee experience, and finding home. “Call me Hmong before you call me American, because Hmong is the closest word I know to home.”
This poem is heartbreaking. Sad poems can be useful when crafting activities or discussions focused on walking in someone else’s shoes. “Year after year she makes flowers bloom in the hood, petals in the face of this land that doesn’t want her here.”
Talking about racism involves *talking* about racism, and this piece has always been a favorite of mine because of how it illuminates how those conversations so often go. It’s absurdist, and even funny, but it points to something deadly serious and can be a useful entry point for talking about how we talk about racism.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”