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’m writing this before the results are in, so can’t comment on that. What I can comment on, however, is that it’s been really weird to have my poem about voting go viral over the last 48 hours.
If you’re here because of that piece, and are new to my work, welcome! Please feel free to take a look at my about page for some more info on what I do.
Anyway, a big part of the *point* of that poem is that voting is important, and also that voting is insufficient. Voting is a small thing we can do that can make a difference on the margins—and the margins matter—but the work of building a better world is much, much bigger than electoral strategy.
So this is a post with some readings and resources that have been useful to me about that idea of “the day after.” These aren’t deep dives into tactical questions; just some potential places to start, especially for people who haven’t been involved in organizing, activism, or advocacy work before. I hope these can be useful.
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.”
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:
Just finished facilitating a six-week course for Button Poetry called “Writing to Cancel the Apocalypse,” which focused on “political” poetry: analyzing examples, sharing tools and tactics, and exploring the role(s) of poets and other artists in times of crisis (which is also ground my new book covers). I’d like to synthesize some of those discussions into a few posts here over the next few months; I already shared this updated list of poems on reproductive justice. Here’s one that uses social media as an entry point into thinking about the broader issue of how we (artists or otherwise) use our platforms.
I wrote a version of this years ago, but here’s an update. Some framing:
1. This is a tool that’s been useful to me, and I’m sharing it in case it can be useful to others. I’m not interested in policing what other people post about, or “calling out” people with different social media practices. I’ve just had so many conversations with people who want to speak out, but don’t know what to say, and my hope is that this can be useful food for thought.
2. We already know that social media, by itself, is not the work. It’s not radical. All of the platforms are owned by awful people and built to be addictive. But it is a tool that a lot of organizations, collectives, and individuals still use, for better or worse, and it can do some good when used with intentionality. (And as long as we’re talking about social media and activism, here’s a good thread from Evan Greer on digital security basics).
3. The primary audience I have in mind for this piece is people like me: artists, minor celebrities (extremely minor, in my case), people with some kind of platform. These days, however, almost everyone has “some kind of platform.” Whether it’s 100k, 10k, or just a few dozen followers- we all have access to our own specific micro-audiences, so we might as well do something with it.
“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.