It’s easier to talk about “tragedy” than it is to talk about “injustice.”
New video! Thanks again to Button Poetry for hosting me in their office for this shoot. Aside from rehearsals, it was my first time performing a lot of these poems from the new book—including this one. If you don’t already know, Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough doesn’t take place on our world. It follows two poets, the robot Gyre and their apprentice, the human Nary, as they travel from village to village across a prison colony moon. The poems in the book are a mix of Nary’s poems and the poems the duo hears from the people who live in the villages they visit. A Hundred People Died on First Hill is one of the latter: an unnamed speaker recounting a catastrophe it feels like everyone else has moved on from.
Of course, a big part of building science-fictional worlds is to comment on our own, and “recounting a catastrophe it feels like everyone else has moved on from” obviously has real-world resonance. From the pandemic, to Palestine, to police violence, to all kinds of actual injustices—we need to be writing about those directly too, not just indirectly like in this piece. It’s a tension present throughout the book, and my hope is that it’s a generative tension, especially for someone with a long history of writing explicitly about political issues; I was just curious about what doors could open up via the sci-fi approach. I don’t think it’s a better or worse way of writing, just something different.
With this piece, I wanted to attempt to describe the emotional side of seeing the world move on from the thing you care about, but also explore the “so what.” The “so what” is something a poem doesn’t have to have, but I’ve always been drawn to it. In this piece, there isn’t one easy solution or magic key to making everything better, but in gesturing at concepts like art and vandalism (and even a specific kind of vandalism), questioning and refusal, etc., there is a path from “hey look at this terrible thing” to “we have power and agency to do something about this terrible thing.”
I don’t think it’s the poet’s job to give people easy answers, but I do see part of my job (not every poet’s job, but mine) as illuminating that path. Even if it’s only that first step. I’m reminded of this Marge Piercy quote (which you may recognize because I included it in this zine too):
“There’s always a thing you can deny an oppressor, if only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-oping. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back. In your time many without power found ways to fight. Till that became a power.”
No, no cops. Neighbors. Family. Helpers. Experts. Medics. Shamans. Scrappers. Friends-of-friends. Preachers. Healers. Mechanics. Witches. In-laws. Volunteers. Whatever. We’ll figure it out. But no cops.
A little context, for anyone interested: In my book, “Not a Lot of Reasons To Sing, But Enough,” there is a series of “tall tales” about the exile folk hero Hen March. I don’t know if I’d call them “poems,” but it doesn’t really matter; like stories and songs in our own world, they communicate a set of values about the society in which they are told.
For some real-world context, this is one of the many pieces in the book about abolition. This one is definitely the most straightforward; aside from the sci-fi conceit of “a folktale being told by a travelling poet on a prison colony moon where the prisoners have had their memories erased,” it’s a relatively blunt story about prevention vs. punishment, about how a world without police or prisons doesn’t have to be some perfect utopia; it can just be not this. Being able to imagine not this is important.
In a 2019 interview, Mariame Kaba said this about the prison industrial complex:
You’re allowed to say ‘not this.’ Your critique in and of itself is valid. You’re allowed to say ‘not this,’ and keep it moving. Why? Because we didn’t get into this problem yesterday. We got into it over time. This is a collective problem that lots of people’s hands are involved in. This is bipartisan to the nth degree. So why then is a problem that was formulated by a lot of people over a long period of time expected to be resolved by one person giving the solution to the problem or having to shut up? Because what they’re selling you is not just like ‘you don’t get it,’ it’s ‘you come up with solution or you say nothing’ and I absolutely reject that. I reject that on its face. I think that is a way to silence people with radical critiques.
So that’s a starting point. For this piece, I wanted to use the “tall tale” format as an entry point into these ideas. There’s a lot of freedom in that approach—it isn’t my voice telling people what to think; it’s a character being referenced by another character, and the different layers of voice, hopefully, create room for readers/listeners to engage with the content as a story, as opposed to a powerpoint presentation of talking points.
A big goal/project/impulse in the book is that kind of “entry point” work. This poem, as well as poems like Good Apples, Wireless It Might Scream, Why Do You Write Poems When Death Is All Around Us, and others all engage with abolitionist ideas, although that specific word is never used. That relates to another theme in the book: the idea of how individual poems, songs, or other creative efforts can contribute to a larger story, without having to be the whole story. My book is absolutely not the book you read if you’re already interested in abolition and want to learn more; my hope is that it can plant a seed, especially for people new to the concept, whether they’re Button Poetry fans, sci-fi fans, or just people who randomly saw the book in a bookstore and thought the cover looked cool.
All that being said, if you ARE already interested in abolition and want to learn more, I have some fantastic resources to share:
One more MPD150 resource: The #AbolitionReadings series is a curated selection of some of the most powerful writing on abolition over the past few years. If you’re serious about learning more, it’s a really valuable collection.
Micah Herskind put together a big list of abolitionist books; my personal recommendations would be Mariame Kaba’s “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us” and Derecka Purnell’s “Becoming Abolitionists.”
Also, I may grow this into a separate post later, but for now, here are a couple of other abolitionist (or abolitionist-adjacent) poems I’d recommend:
I usually share new videos by contextualizing them a bit, but I do that IN this video, so I’ll just go ahead and post the transcript below. One thing I’ll add that isn’t in the video, though, is that this piece came together little-by-little over the past few years, and a couple of influences/reference points were Umberto Eco’s “Ur-Fascism” and Amanda Taub’s “The Rise of American Authoritarianism.” There’s also stuff like Zeynep Tufekci’s “America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent” or even the episode of Last Week Tonight that dug into authoritarianism both in the US and beyond. Lots of good resources out there, and like I say in the video itself, this is much less about the specific vocabulary word and more about exploring some of the ideas underneath it.
I guess if there is a more focused “point” to this piece, it’s about exploring how authoritarianism can manifest not just as a method of governing, or a political system, but also as a set of attitudes, values, and ideals that impact a wide range of real-world issues and situations. Here’s the video, with the full transcript below (transcript contains some notes meant for the text version of this piece):
Hey- I’m about to share something new, but just to frame it a little bit: I probably said this in my last video, but since most of my poems go up on Button Poetry’s channel, I haven’t been using my own channel much. I do, however, have some plans for it for this coming year, including a series that should kick off shortly. Before any of that is released, though, I wanted to just do a little test run of my setup.
So THIS is a piece that never really found a home anywhere. It isn’t really a spoken word poem. It isn’t really an essay, or a speech. There was a specific thing I wanted to say, and so I let the content kind of drive the form… and the form it ended up taking was that of a parody of a specific 90s standup comedy routine: Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if…”
So the piece is written to kind of mimic that 90s standup comic delivery style but it’s about something really serious… and actually memorizing it and turning into a performance art piece, just didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. So I’m going to share it here, and I’ll also include the full text at my website. And hopefully it can be useful in some way to someone out there.
The poem itself is really just me trying to write something for my 18 year-old self, illuminating the various arguments I’ve heard, from organizers over the years, about why and how voting matters. It’s very rarely “vote because you have to!” or “vote because it’s the only way you can have a voice!” The best arguments, or at least the ones that have been most persuasive to me, are more nuanced than that. Not that nuance is always my thing as a poet… but here’s the poem (and a link to an IG version):
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.