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.”
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:
“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.