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.
This piece is from my book. Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, But Enough is more-or-less a poetry book (find all the poems/videos we’ve released from it so far here), 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. 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.
All Advice is Bad Advice, Including the Advice that All Advice is Bad Advice
The Library of the Road has brought together three professional wordsmiths for a panel discussion on advice for aspiring writers. The three writers, along with a moderator representing the Library, sit on stools inside a communal hall where a few dozen attendees sit on benches. The Library’s traveling collection of texts lines the sides of the hall; a few wanderers browse through the books and scrolls.
A quick note: the video here is the most recent performance; I did also share this one right when the poem first came out. Thanks to Button Poetry for capturing it!
I know you’re not supposed to explain the poem before sharing it. But I also never liked the notion that poetry is a puzzle to be solved. For me, it’s more about expression and communication, so here are a few brief framing notes:
This is a contrapuntal poem. So it’s one poem, set next to a second poem, that can also be read side-by-side as a third poem.
The first part is about BTS, a Korean pop group. If you know, you already know. If you don’t, I share some recommended listening below.
The second part is about Warhammer 40k, a dystopian, ultra-violent, sci-fi series of tabletop games, video games, and novels. The 40k refers to it being set (more-or-less) 40,000 years in the future.
During the first few years of the pandemic, I listened to a lot of BTS and played a lot of the video game series Total War: Warhammer (which isn’t actually set in the 40k universe, but opened the door to that lore for me), and ended up trying to write two poems about these pieces of pop culture that were so helpful to me in very dark times. Eventually, I figured out that I was actually writing one poem—that juxtaposing the most joyful and most nihilistic pop culture I could think of could be a doorway into thinking more deeply about hope and collectivity. The contrapuntal is a weird form, but it just made sense for this concept.
I wrote this before BTS announced that they were going on hiatus in order to begin their mandatory military service. The militaristic imagery in the piece might make it seem like it’s some kind of commentary on that, but it’s not intentional. I could imagine someone writing that poem, but I leave that to more appropriate and talented writers.
I assume that the venn diagram between BTS fans and 40k fans is quite small, and maybe no one will “get” or like this poem. But sometimes you have to write the thing that’s just for you.
A final note on the text: I’ve included the traditional, side-by-side version below, but I’ve ALSO included a separate block of text for the three poems as separate pieces. I did this because as someone who primarily writes in order to perform, there are a few moments in the poem that just kind of “work” better when performed aloud than on the page, especially concerning punctuation and emphasis.
The video is embedded above; here is the image of the poem’s proper layout + text of the poem below it:
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.