There is no light at the end of this tunnel/ so it’s a good thing we brought matches.
I haven’t released any music of my own since 2018’s “War Balloons” with Big Cats (although I did appear on those two Fred Again songs; find them here). Surprise! Here’s something new, a remix of “Matches.”
This is a piece of writing that has meant a lot to me over the years, the closest thing I have to a personal manifesto. It was originally part of a side project, so I’ve pretty much always performed just my own parts solo (often a capella), and had wanted to build a solo version of the song out of that for a long time. I guess good things take time, because Dave Olson is a musician I’ve liked and respected for 20 years (!) now; someone who was part of the very first community of artists that ever nurtured me, and it really feels special to collaborate with him on this song. Hope you like 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’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.”
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