This past July, I got to open up for Rudy Francisco here in Minneapolis at Icehouse, and used it as an opportunity to formally “debut” a poem I’ve been working on for months, probably my favorite new thing that I’ve written since my book came out. As always, I like the share a few notes on the process, as well as the full text below.
I used to more frequently do “here’s what I’m up to” posts, but that feels like a relic of an earlier internet time. Still, there’s a lot happening, so I figured I’d share some info here so it can be in a central place rather than a bunch of random social media posts.
NPR Tiny Desk Concert as part of Fred Again’s set
Check it out! Fred sampled my poem “Love in the Time of Undeath” for the song “Kyle (I Found You)” and the result if gorgeous. It’s the first song in his set, and I even appear as a video ghost performing the poem.
Ugly music can be beautiful. A simple song can kindle a complex memory. A living creature gave its skin to that drum.
This is one of the first poems in NOT A LOT OF REASONS TO SING, BUT ENOUGH. Like everything in the book, it’s written in-character. I feel like I always have to add that caveat, since so much spoken word is driven by first-person, poet-as-voice-as-poet approaches (which I don’t think is a good thing or a bad thing; just one approach), and this book definitely doesn’t do that.
Kind of a table-setting piece for the book, a way to do some exposition without just a big info-dump. Beyond the narrative function of the piece, though, it’s also about the importance of… not just art and culture in general, but more specifically: spaces for art and culture to live. So much of this book goes back to the idea of the open mic, the poetry slam, the concert, the mural, the party, the dance, etc. and the role(s) that those spaces play in resisting, disrupting, and dismantling authoritarian impulses, in both the society and the individual.
Here, so many who have earned blood spill only paint. So many who have earned fire seek only respect. So many who have earned cutting the throat of the world want only to see their children grow up happy.
Now, we’re back to our regularly-scheduled program, and Button Poetry just released a brand new video for my poem “To the Informants in the Audience Tonight,” which you can find in my book, “Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough.”
For those who don’t already know, the book is a sci-fi concept album of a poetry collection, taking place on another world, so there were a lot of opportunities to explore very real-world issues through a different lens. This was one of the last poems I wrote for the book, and it was difficult. This is both a very bitter, angry poem, and a kind of ridiculously hopeful poem. I like the effect of that bitterness and that hope right next to each other, dancing with one another.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I swear I feel it buzz/ a voicemail from the nothing where something was…
For people who have been following my work, you might recognize this. It’s a new video for an older song. There are already a handful of different musical versions/remixes of this out there (including this one, produced by Big Cats, one of my favorite pieces of music I’ve ever been part of making), but I wanted to have an a capella version too.
You can tell this was shot a few years ago because (1) I don’t have a beard, which I feel like I’ve always had? And (2) I am performing this way too fast. Slow down!
Aside from the fairly straightforward content of the piece, it’s something I use in a lot of writing workshops because it’s… well, if I’m being honest, because it’s short and memorized—but also because it’s a demonstration of a tool we talk about a lot: concrete language. There’s concrete imagery throughout the piece (the water imagery, the cell phone vibrating, the stained glass, the physical feeling of laughing when you know you’re not supposed to, etc.), but specifically, I often use the first four bars as an example of starting a poem or song in a moment, as opposed to starting with an idea or statement.
As I try to always be careful to say, you don’t have to do that, and plenty of great songs and poems don’t do that. But I think opening with a scene/memory/”thing happening” (vs. opening with “here’s what I think about X!”) is a powerful tool, and I find it being used in a lot of writing that is meaningful to me.
I hope this piece can be useful to anyone else going through it. Here’s the full text:
First and foremost, THANK YOU to everyone who has picked up a copy of my little anti-authoritarian sci-fi poetry book. A whole lot of work and love and dread and intentionality went into it, so it means so much to see people engaging with it.
I just wanted to put a post together gathering some of the videos and other book-related content that we’ve released already, especially for anyone just hearing it about it for the first time now.
IN-STUDIO PERFORMANCE VIDEOS
Button Poetry has released other videos featuring my work this year (find them all here), but here are the ones that are from the new book (more on the way!):
For those who don’t already know, “Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough” isn’t written in my voice; it’s full of poems and conversations from a cast of characters. It also doesn’t take place on this world (which is why this poem talks about swords and bandits and mushrooms). But that sci-fi approach is meant to be an entry point into very real-world issues. On one level, this piece is a fairly straightforward, slam-style ars poetica. But to me, the best part of this poem (and maybe one of the best parts of the book as a whole) is right here:
Why Do You Write Poems When Death is All Around Us? Because of simple mathematics. With a blade in my hand, what are my odds against a hungry bandit? With a poem on my tongue, though, maybe I can visit a village and make a child laugh. Maybe that child then sleeps through the night with no nightmares. Maybe his older sister then also sleeps through the night, because she doesn’t have to wake up to comfort her brother. Maybe then, later in the day, she will go for a walk by the river instead of taking a nap. Maybe she will discover a secret bloom of mushrooms, and the whole village will have a great feast. Maybe a man, who in another story would have been a hungry bandit, attends that feast, eats until he is full, and dances until he is delirious. And look at me; I’ve killed a bandit. Simple mathematics.
That passage is attempting to tell a very specific story, a story that is reflected throughout the book in different ways. I won’t over-explain it here, but I at least wanted to highlight that passage, since it’s important to me.
I also wanted to share these squares; one features that quote, and the other features another one of the incredible visual art pieces that Casper Pham did for the book.
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.”
Note: This post was originally just set up to share my poem, but I expanded it to share other poems that explore abolition; I might still expand it even further into a separate post. For now, find that list below.
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: