“We teach boys how to wear the skin of a man, but we also teach them how to raise that skin like a flag and draw blood for it.”
(a bit of a content warning, in that this piece does eventually connect toxic masculinity to relationship violence, self-harm, violence against trans people, etc.)
Just to get this out of the way: I know it can be risky to re-release new versions of old work. I’m sure there will be YouTube comments pointing out how the original version, the one where I curse in the very first line, was so much better. But a “radio edit” of this poem is something people have asked for for years; there are other clean versions online, but this is the *definitive* clean version, and if it means more people can use it (in classrooms, youth groups, and beyond), that’s great.
And honestly, I like this version better anyway. I understand why the original took off all those years ago (over a million views on YouTube and 16 million on Facebook), and I have nothing against cursing in poems; I just think the shock factor or whatever doesn’t play the same way it did back then.
Speaking of “back then,” it’s the tenth anniversary of this poem, more or less. I performed it for the first time at the Artists’ Quarter in Saint Paul, sometime in January or February of 2012. The Button Poetry version that went viral is from a different show, and went up in 2013. The poem was a response to a specific series of beer commercials (here’s a Bitch Media piece with an overview of that campaign), and that phrase was part of “the discourse” at the time, from the work of Carlos Andrés Gómez (check out his book, “Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood” and TEDx Talk, “Man Up: The Gift of Fear”) to a very early commentary on it from political analyst John Dickerson: “Man Down.” A local poet named Jeremy Levinger also had a poem using the phrase as a jumping-off point.
With lots of voices critiquing something from lots of different angles, it can be tempting to feel like the culture has moved on from that moment, and in some ways, I really think it has. But only in some ways; I’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think it’s a matter of “things getting better” or “things getting worse” when we talk about men and masculinity in the US—I think it’s both, simultaneously. So the work continues. For poets, sure, but also for teachers, coaches, mentors, advocates, parents, and so many others- engaging young people (and not-so-young-people) about issues related to how we understand masculinity is foundational work for preventing domestic violence, sexual assault, mass shootings, and so many other things. Hopefully this piece can be useful.
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.
(Editor’s note: this video was scheduled to be released today, and there’s obviously other stuff on a lot of people’s minds because of yesterday’s supreme court news. While the thread in this poem of masculinity only being able to make sense of itself through the lens of power and control is relevant, if it can be useful to anyone, I’ve also pulled together a list of poems on reproductive justice here).
This is actually an older piece; Button Poetry posted a version of it back in 2019, but there was an audio issue, so we decided to record this new version. I’m grateful, as always, to them for giving an admittedly… nontraditional poem/speech/thing like this a home.
It’s also a fun break from promoting my new book; the sci-fi-driven “Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough” definitely has a thread running through it examining masculinity and its relationship with authoritarianism, but a poem like this, taking place on our world, written in my own voice, can be a lot more straightforward. I don’t think “straightforward” is a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just one way for a poem to be, and I like experimenting with multiple ways.
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.
After the plague took my sister, I punched the stone wall of her room so hard it shattered all the bones in my right hand. This is how the men in my family tell sad stories: we always add a little violence.
The first poem from the new book is here! NOT A LOT OF REASONS TO SING, BUT ENOUGH itself officially launches on March 29 (though if you order it from Button Poetry, you can get it early), and this poem is a good taste of things to come. Before I share some notes on the poem, I want to spotlight Casper Pham‘s incredible piece that accompanies this poem (Casper also has illustrations throughout the book):
1. If you haven’t already heard, the new book is a “concept album,” so to speak, and all the poems are written in-character. It isn’t always clear which character is the voice of each poem, though; there’s a kind of focal-point character, Nary, but Nary and his mentor Gyre travel from village to village across this prison colony moon, and they share their poems while also listening to the poems of the people in those villages. The book is made up of a sampling of all those poems, as well as the conversations around them. The big takeaway, I guess, is that even though I wrote this, I am not the speaker.
2. This poem is a play off of my most well-known poem, “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’.” I just thought it’d be funny to be on stage and say “ten responses to…” and then something completely different from what the audience expects. It kind of sets up what the book is all about, in terms of… probably not being what people expect. That being said, this poem also demonstrates that the new, weird book is still covering a lot of the same ground as my older work: this is a poem creating space to think critically about masculinity, authority, and power.
Here’s the full text; thank you for reading, listening, and/or picking up the new book. Please feel free to share!
How small a seed it takes to birth a forest. How small a spark it takes to burn down an empire.
If I’m being honest, this is maybe my favorite poem of mine, or at least one that means a lot to me. I’m very grateful that Button was able to capture this footage and chose to share it. A few quick notes:
I wrote this during the pandemic, parallel to writing my new book. It’s not actually in the new book, though, since that book takes place on another world and this poem is full of very Earth-centric references. But both this poem and that book explore the idea of what hope can mean, and what it can look like, amidst great crisis, grief, and uncertainty. So if you like the poem, you might like the book too.
I also want to be clear that, to me at least, this is a poem about finding those moments when we can choose to step up, to show up, to act. I realize that it will likely be interpreted to be more about mental health, and I worry that a line like “it only takes one moment to choose to fight” might hit differently depending on how people are hearing the poem. Of course, everyone is free to interpret how they need to; I’m just saying that for me, the poem is less about dealing with depression in a mental health sense, and more about dealing with cynicism in a political sense.
The poem is built from not just some of my favorite songs, but my favorite individual moments in songs. Obviously, there’s a deeper metaphor at work here, and the poem isn’t actually *about* the songs. But compiling those moments was really fun; my favorite moments aren’t always from my favorite artists, and my favorite artists don’t all show up in this poem. I would recommend it as a playlist-building exercise for anyone. It forced me to really identify those rare moments when a song “turns,” or where an already-great song becomes something truly transcendent.
Speaking of playlists, I made one for this poem here, especially for anyone who isn’t super familiar with the songs I chose. Bear in mind, however, that the timestamps in the poem might not be perfectly accurate, since different versions of songs (especially with videos) might have additional content that changes when the moments happen. But they should be close, at least.
Thanks so much for watching and sharing. I’d love to keep adding to this list, by the way. So if you have a favorite moment from a song, please feel free to share with me, whether on Twitter or IG or whatever.
Here’s the text. The video is for an earlier draft of this piece; since then, I’ve added to it. Probably not necessary additions on a poetry level, haha, but just some extra shout outs that I wanted to include:
TENSION AND RELEASE
One minute and 42 seconds into Springsteen’s Thunder Road, when the whole song opens up exactly as though you had just… rolled down the window, to let the wind blow back your hair. 24 seconds into Yoko Kanno’s Tank! and how could we not jam? The dance choreographed to Nina Simone’s Lilac Wine, about 38 minutes and 58 seconds into the Netflix version of Beyonce’s Homecoming. Four minutes and 27 seconds into Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me, when Bushwick Bill says… I’m not going to tell you what he says! You have to listen to the song. Five minutes and six seconds into Donny Hathaway’s A Song for You. 18 seconds into Fortunate Son by CCR. 10 seconds into Lost Ones by Lauryn Hill.
I don’t believe in magic, or miracles, or destiny. Just tension and release.
In 9th Wonder by Digable Planets, Ladybug Mecca comes in at 3:11 with… “Now you see that I’m 68 inches above sea level/ 93 million miles above these devils,” …and that rhyme, like it was meant to be, like it couldn’t be any other way, answers a question I never knew I was asking. Four minutes into Radiohead’s Let Down, the lead vocal pulls itself apart, like the splitting of a cell, like the splitting of an atom. Like 44 seconds into Think by Aretha Franklin, when a song that was already great, and already would have been a classic, transforms, and transcends… that lyric: “freedom.” Expanding, overwhelming… miraculous.
We collect and catalog these moments. Mixtape our memory. Call it inspiration; call it ammunition. Call it evidence, the building of a case for our species, the idea that as much tension as there is in this world, the release is worth fighting for.
Pull up the footage of Sam Cooke covering Blowin’ in the Wind. Or Gogol Bordello performing Wanderlust King on Letterman. Or the video for Never Catch Me by Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. Or Kesha hitting that high note in Praying. Or BTS tearing up as ARMY sings Young Forever at Wembley Stadium. Tension and release works so well in music because it’s a language our bodies already speak. At four minutes and nine seconds into Pa’lante by Hurray for the Riff Raff. We listen to our bodies. In Sabotage by the Beastie Boys: the breakdown at 1:40 and the scream at 1:52. We listen to our bodies. We feel. The bassline in Papa Was a Rolling Stone. The bassline in #1 Crush. The bassline in Come as You Are. The bassline in Dance, Dance. The bassline in Devil’s Pie.
At the lowest point in my life, I listened to D’angelo’s Voodoo every night, usually falling asleep about halfway through Send It On. But then there’s this moment, 42 minutes and 30 seconds later, in the song Untitled, where what feels like an entire album’s worth of sunrise finally erupts into day… and that would always wake me up.
And isn’t that art? Waking up.
Isn’t that the power of a moment? The DJ crossfades and a door opens. Between oblivion and being a body again. How does it feel? To step through it?
Because yeah, it takes more than a moment… to win. Or to heal. Or to build the world we want to live in. But it only takes one moment to choose to fight. So make me a playlist of those moments, and I will listen to it whenever I need to remember: how small a seed it takes to birth a forest. How small a spark it takes to burn down an empire. How all it takes to break an infinite silence, is one… two, one two three…