Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Poetry at the Heart of Revolution: Working at the Intersection of Feminism, Queerness and Social Change


This week, I have had the amazing opportunity to spend the bulk of my time at Davidson College in Davidson, NC. I was invited to visit the school by Dr. Shante Smalls, and for the last three days I have had the privilege of sitting and thinking and building with some truly great students and some amazing professors. Last night, I gave my first formal public lecture at a college. Though I have done a number of classroom lectures over the last seven or eight years, this was my first all eyes on me (actually us...I shared the evening and the week with the stunningly amazing, beautiful and transformational Sophia Wallace...I am SO in love with her and her work and her--did I mention she is amazing) scholarly conversation on why I do the work I do and how I do it.

I have decided to publish my remarks here. Each section of the discussion was paired with a poem from my collection, It Ain't Truth If It Doesn't Hurt, which you can purchase by here.

Davidson College Remarks
Queer Communities/Queer Critiques

Given at the College on October 25, 2011 at the invitation of Dr. Shante Smalls and in dialogue with visual artist Sophia Wallace

Owning the Space We're In

Poetry: Stump Speech

I want to thank Davidson College, Professor Shante Smalls, Dean Ross, Sophia Wallace, the English Department support staff, and the students of Davidson for having me here to share some time and thoughts with you. And I am particularly pleased to be back in North Carolina. I will forgive all ya'll for deciding to go to Davidson when you could have gone to Warren Wilson, my alma mater, just up the road in Swansong.

To have the opportunity and space to sit in dialogue across disciplines, within academia, while connecting the practice and function of artistic form to grassroots revolutionary change is a privilege that most people do not have nor get to have. It is a privilege that most practicing artists of whatever genre or medium are never privileged to have, and so I want to acknowledge, sitting in this space, the presence of folks doing the work of radical social change, public critic and power building using art are many, varied, and often doing their work outside of they academy, and sometimes, in opposition to it—not from any particular hatred of academia but often because of the particular role that academia plays in propping up certain forms of oppression and the role academia has often played in determining which art forms are valid, valuable and respected. Page poetry versus spoken word, oil on canvas versus spray paint on a train trestle, museum art versus mail art, pop art (aka the art of the people) versus high art. As a spoken word artist, I have felt distinctly that disconnect, and so this conversation today, with two practicing artists that have connections to the academy but work outside of it, is important not only for the content of our work but also for creating intentional relationships within a system that has, traditionally, undervalued our work or tokenized it, relegating it to classes and studies that are themsleves marginalized within the academy (raise your hand if you are only able to encounter significant subject matter of value to communities of color within the context of “ethnic” studies department or have submitted an idea for a paper or project and been told that it doesn't have enough “theory” in it.)

Theory is oftentimes academic speak for bullshit. Don't get it twisted, the ghetto is alive and well behind the ivory walls. But I digress. I am supposed to be here talking about poetry and politics, queerness and feminism, gender fucking and fucking in general, the personal as political as political as personal.

So let's talk about that for a minute. I don't mind getting real personal with all y'all.

I came to my life as a writer very personally. Poetry was how I survived the self-awareness process that is the phenomena of coming out of the closet. All through high school I wrote terrible poetry about tear drops falling and lighting and broken hearts and the moon. In fact, a good friend of mine still has all the poems I wrote to her, and I have told her that she had better be buried with those poems as I never want to see them again. Poetry and other forms of writing that I practice, very simply, is how I see, feel, and process the world. Whether I am talking about love, a break up, a one night stand, going to war, racism, addiction, or living with HIV, my poetry is very personal yet to walk in this world as a queer man, a positive man, a descendant of slaves, a survivor of abuse, a child of the Ojibwe Nation, light skinned, college educated, from a family full of immigrants, is to understand that everything I do at all times is influenced by and takes part, actively or passively in fundamental political systems and systems of privilege and oppression.

Poetry: Big Sam

Poetry As An Act of Feminist Resistance

Beyond the fact that I know and love and have organized and worked with Dr. Smalls for over a decade, there is another reason that I am sitting here instead of a queer woman of color doing the same work. I now have the privilege of having published a book, and being a male with other male friends that have benefitted from male privilege, I was able to circumvent the normal publishing process, take my work straight to the publisher and here I sit. I didn't think about any of that at the time but just because I didn't think about it doesn't make it any less real or any less connected to real political systems that are foundational to who gets to make, create, and publish art. And so I'd like to honor and bring into this space that I am grateful to be here but I am here not entirely because of my own work but because of work that is done before I even wake up in the morning by a system that maintains a reserve of privilege for the male body in which I move.

I also want to talk to you a little bit about why I identify as a feminist and do my work through a feminist lens. Listen closely because I am about to lay something on you. I firmly believe that women have a choice of whether or not they wish to move in the world as feminists. While I would thoroughly want to shake my little sisters until they looked like bobble heads if they came home talking about submitting to their husbands and birthing babies and the like, I would resist the urge and instead make a bee line for her intended to let him know that if he ever asked her to submit, I would submit my foot to the back of his head.

Men, you have no choice. You are required to be feminist if you ever want this world to even begin to consider dismantling systemic oppression. Like racism and classism, sexism is the third leg of the stool that is the fundamental and foundational underpinning of the capitalist system and like those two other legs of oppression, sexism is combined and recombined to create other forms of oppression such as heterosexism, transmisogyny, feminist racism (I wish that were an oxymoron), etc. Just as white power and privilege is propped up through the vehicle of racism, male power and privilege is propped up through sexism and committing oneself as a man to feminist principles, action, and living means to be not only staunchly anti-sexist but proactively pro-woman and to use the power, privilege, and opportunity you have been given by virtue of being born with a penis, or the ability to pass (for the trans men that may be in the audience), to smash oppression as it impacts women, batter down the glass ceilings and, wait for it, step away from advancement and opportunity at times when it would be more effective, meaningful, and powerful for the work to be done by a woman.

Now I am not talking about turning down a job to feed your family, but I am talking about making sure that you are actively opening up space in your student groups, in your classrooms, in your daily life and actively asking the question of yourself AND other men, “What can I personally do and SYSTEMICALLY support to ensure that the voices of women are centered in the world and in the spaces to which I have been given access.”

Without women, and specifically radical feminist women of color—queer and straight—I would not be a poet today. In 2003, I attended a International Women's Day spoken word performance at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, MN. It was called Women Holding Up Half the Sky. Poets Juliana Hu Pegues, Sha Cage, and Coya Hope White Hat Artichoker gave spoken word performances. That evening changed my life. That night I wrote my first spoken word poem. Unfortunately, due to a combination of electronic misfortune and a brain malfunction that poem is lost forever. What remains is a commitment to using poetry as a way to challenge misogyny and heterosexism and male privilege.

Poetry: Stolen

Racism/Classism/Poetry Oh My!

I'd like to share another poem with you now. And though my friends often refer to me as an I.R.A—I require attention, I am going to prove them slightly wrong by reading to you an excerpt from another poet. I am not going to tell you who this poet is, in fact, I am going to ask you to tell me who this person is once I have read to you this excerpt, please note that in order to keep from handing you the answer any more than the piece already does, I will be omitting a couple of lines from the work:

...if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but "fear itself." But I wouldn't stop there.

This is an excerpt from Martin Luther King's speech, “I've Been to the Mountaintop,” which he gave the night before his assassination in Memphis, TN. This speech was given in support of the sanitation workers strike in Memphis. It is pure spoken word. It was also part of a larger rallying cry to make sure that by marching for racial justice we did not forget or were not divided from a movement for economic justice.

Dr. King understood that one of the ways that capitalism was maintained and that slavery had been maintained and Jim Crow had been maintained was a systemic division of poor black and poor whites from one another. He understood and colonialists understood that poor whites and poor blacks had more in common simply by being poor than they had in a difference created by skin color. It was thus that race based oppression was systematically created in this country as a way to do two things at the same time: maintain a system of control by intrinsically linking working class whites to slaves while also keeping them from seeing each other as allies and create a permanent basis of low wage and free labor.

Though folks like Bayard Rustin and Ralph Abernathy and others had, a generation before, tried to bridge the race/class divide by organizing within the union and labor movements of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s (through intentional work in both the north and south especially in places like the Highlander Center), Dr. King understood, and built upon the work of and worked in partnership with Abernathy and Rustin, that in order to bridge the race/class divide you first had to break down ENOUGH of the racist inculcation of working class whites and blacks for them to be able to stand side by side and see the humanity each other. Once those cracks were hammered into the side of racism, you could blow the basis of the entire system wide open when black folks, using the power and momentum built up by the Civil Rights movement, inserted themselves into the working class white/black struggle around economics as evidenced by the sanitation workers strike in Memphis.

Dr. King wasn't murdered because he had played a role in breaking down certain racial barriers/norms/mores that were already falling apart on their own due to the natural pressures of competition within a capitalist system, he was murdered because using the poetry of his words, he was attacking the fundament of capitalism itself, and it was working.

J. Edgar Hoover wasn't having any of that.

Poetry: These Streets

Poetry at the Heart of Revolution(aries)

There was a time in the American experience when poetry and politics went absolutely hand in hand. We listen still to Martin Luther King' Jr's speeches specifically because they are spoken word. And this is not some coincidence, it is not a rare phenomena in the black experience, in fact, this oral poetic history is a thousands of years old West African tradition tied to the griots. Politics and loss, weddings and death, regime changes and life changes were told as poetry from town to town by griots—poets of the people that created art out of the every day life and its circumstances. The griots work was not distinct from the needs, wants, and desires of the community. The griot reflected back and outward to a broader audience the goings on of the moment while also tying those same happenings to the history of the community. The griot and the poet were one and the same and art was inimically tied to the people and reached its peak at a time when, for example, the university at Timbuktu was the most respected place of learning in the Western world, where Europeans were considered too limited in their education to instruct students, and any notion of divorcing poetry from the people would have earned you side eye from just about everyone.

We are seeing a distinct resurgence of the art politic in grassroots communities and most definitely it is an integral part in much of the anti-racist, anti-police brutality, anti-corporate organizing happening in communities across the country. Spoken word is one of the rare art forms that the corporate state hasn't found a way to co-opt and market (beyond a short run of Def Poetry Jam) and as such it remains a distinct vox populi in a way that hip-hop has struggled to maintain and that mainstream rap ceased to be 20 years ago. In this commercial, corporate oligarchy with tendencies towards democracy when it suits the purposes of power, folks would have you believe that art has always been something for consumption by the idle as opposed to a tool for social change. Too many texts would have you study Diego Rivera divorced from his Marxist-Leninist ideology, Frida Kahlo from her first wave of feminism roots, Emily Dickinson's poetry is desexualized and denies the revolutionary content of her work on claiming women's sexuality and would have you study her as an asexual spinster pining for a missed love.

Every generation and every movement for social change has had artists as intellectuals as revolutionaries at its heart and is the reason why reactionary governments target artists first. A people without artists as prophets are doomed to wander in the desert until they can reclaim the artistic expression that gives articulation and purpose to their outrage. And we aren't just talking about Stalinist pogroms against the intelligentsia in some far off place, we are talking about cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts by GOP administrations (Robert Mapplethorpe almost gave several US Senators an apoplectic fit), and the subsuming of the creation of art inside of the nonprofit industrial complex where artists are often times required to tie their art to specified predetermined outcomes that naturally limit the scope and content of their work. They exchange their true voice for the right to eat or, more specifically, from the fear of going hungry. And this, frankly, is the curse of social movements no matter how they are devised and why Occupy Wall Street and its love children are scaring the beejus out of folks. OWS is a movement outside of the reigns of the nonprofit industrial complex, untied to the carefully crafted systems of control devised during the advent of the Great Society programs and large enough that it can easily push back against the relatively weak administrative attempts (permit denials and “park clean ups”) to mitigate its impact.

I am fairly certain that it was one of Karl Rove's ancestors that created the myth of the starving artist. Just as revolutionary movements in the 60s organized to provide support and sustenance for their members--Black Panther food kitchens and the like--so too do artists have a long history of self organizing to sustain each other. This was and has been and continues to be so that they could create without relying on the very systems that piss them off to the point of doing art in the first place. And, of course, those self-same revolutionary movements (anti-war, black panther, brown power, women's movement, queer movement) had artists at their core and spawned and continue to inspire artistic expression generations later. That is truly revolutionary. Revolution is the essence of creation and is a requirement of the creative process, anything else is mass production...the art is there but it is so distant from the original as to be a glossy two dimensional distraction removed from the grit of its original intention.

To sustain ourselves as artists/organizers/change-makers requires that we actively disbelieve the notion that there is a limited supply of nourishment in the world. We know, for a fact, that the food produced in the U.S. ALONE is enough to feed the entire planet, and for those of us that grew up in poverty, we understand, to paraphrase that fantastic writer and friend Aurora Levins Morales, that sustenance can be created from empty calories. And I am, of course, not speaking solely of food when I speak of nourishment. I am speaking about love, affection, joy, peace, accountability, safety, creativity, attention, celebration, and liberation. So we have to make a choice to reject the “slice of the pie” that is served to us and learn to not only believe that we deserve a bigger, fatter, juicer slice but also, in fact, we need a pie baked the right way with the right intentions so that there is enough for every single person that has hunger. No one is going to feed us but us. It's beyond time that we start building a kitchen, with a house around it, that can feed, house, and hold us all.

Poetry: Resuscitation by Any Means Necessary

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