Since my last post
about measures of success for a political poet, I've had several fruitful conversations about the potential of poetry to create positive changes in the world. Thank you for reading, and for sharing your perspectives to affirm my work and the transformative work of the artists I admire.
Recently, I've also had a couple of publications include my words in their projects to lift voices for social change.
The Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day Project
is producing a zine all about our creativity and collective power to resist the prison industrial complex. Everyday Abolition
is "an international political art collaboration between Chanelle Gallant and Lisa Marie Alatorre, collecting stories, art, and interviews highlighting the ways PIC abolitionists practice, and live PIC abolition in our work, organizing, and personal lives."
So for the rest of 2013, Everyday Abolition is posting stories and words about what it means to live abolition, everyday. A print version of the zine will follow, and until then, you can read the posts online. So far, pieces include The Creative Spark of Injustice
, my response to the acquittal of Travyon Martin's murderer, and Isolation Cannot Heal Isolation: One Survivor's Response to Sexual Assault
, a beautiful, brave post about healing, safety, and accountability, written by Blyth Barnow, a woman I'm proud to call my friend.
Read these posts and more on Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day.
My words also appeared last month in an article by Andrea Abi-Karam, published on openDemocracy's Transformation: Where love meets social justice
. The article, "Political Poetry Does Not Ask Permission,"
includes interviews with me and two other political poets, Jacqueline Frost and Wendy Trevino, on the transformative power of political poetry.
This piece begins: We long for the time when we took to the streets. But now, we take those words from the streets and transform our post-occupy political daze into poetry.
Poetry’s evasion of mainstream capitalism gives it a unique, charged voice for political expression in the public sphere. Compared to other art forms, books collect dust on shelves while gallery pieces sell for thousands. Poetry’s existence outside of “economic desire” gives it the power of a voice that doesn’t seek to please anyone.
“I feel like one thing that makes political poetry so impactful is that it doesn’t ask permission,” says Bay Area poet and activist Maisha Johnson. She continues: “A lot of political poetry says: ‘This is my truth, I’m not going to wait for anybody to allow me to speak my truth. This is what I need to say – I’m going to say it.’”
Read the rest of the article and watch videos of the poets on the Transfomation website.
It’s hard to find a measure of success for a political poet. I’m thinking about success now especially because of I’ve just received an amazing honor – my poem “island’s daughter,” which appeared in the latest issue of Eleven Eleven Journal
, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize! And, in the spirit of my practice of feeling proud, I’ll just leave that honor there, without dismissal. What happens next? Life goes on.
What would success look like for a political poet? Like publication? Like winning an award? Those are great accomplishments, but in the grand scheme of trying to make an impact on social issues, it can feel like there’s still much more to be done. Sometimes, I feel restless trying to sit with the joy of good things, even the best of things
, while outside of the bubble of my poetry world, life goes on.
Yesterday brought an example of this dilemma. I was at home, delighted about the publication of three of my poems in the online journal aaduna
, when I heard a commotion outside. I looked out my window, and for the next couple of hours, I witnessed a mob of police officers aggressively pursuing and arresting a man of color.
With what I know about the alarming rates
at which people of color are being incarcerated, and about the school-to-prison pipeline
making their incarceration inevitable, I knew I was seeing just a small piece of a much larger, completely disheartening puzzle. And suddenly, publishing a poem called “Emmett Till Cry”
didn’t feel like something to rejoice about. I feel grateful for the publication, sure, for the sake of fostering conversations about systematic violence against black boys and men. But it’s hard to celebrate, knowing that this scene will repeat itself again and again. Knowing that life goes on.
I do believe in art as social action, though, so I believe these poems are worth writing, even as life goes on. As I read a piece like “alternatives to sentencing”
(see video below), I know the incarcerated youth I write about sit in their cells, unaware of and unmoved by my poem. But I feel that, by sharing that poem, I can offer a drop in the river flowing to create alternatives to incarcerating young people
. Let’s create something new with youth, I say. Let’s help them build other options for their paths. Let’s try anything but locking them up until their own minds turn against them as they suffer through trauma
that no young person should ever have to struggle to recover from.
I bring up this example because I need your help in getting this poem published. It was one of three poems I performed to win The Lit Slam in August (remember that? that was fun
). That means it'll appear in Tandem Volume 2
, along with such luminaries as Saeed Jones, Sam Sax, and Daphne Gottlieb. I’m just beside myself with the honor of being published alongside these poets, who all create work that touches on some of the most pressing issues of our time. For me, this is not just about the success of publication – it’s about the importance of these words and the conversations they create as life goes on.
So, I humbly ask you to pre-order your copy of Tandem Vol. 2 now by backing The Lit Slam’s Kickstarter campaign
, helping to bring this incredible collection to bookshelves all over the country.
Sassiness at The Lit Slam
The last time I participated in the competitive poetry show The Lit Slam
, I made it to the final round, and left pumped with adrenaline, infused with excitement, and promising to return. Well, it took a shamefully long time for me to return, but I finally made it back. Last time, I wrote about what I learned
from my first experience in a poetry slam. This time, I get to write about what I won.
That's right – I won a poetry slam! This is a first for me. And technically, what I won is purely self-serving: I won bragging rights, and something to add to my bio, mostly for the sake of telling myself that there are people out there who have heard my poetry, and they don't think I'm crazy for writing it. I won a place in The Lit Slam's journal, Tandem Vol. 2
, along with some of my literary heroes, which just makes me think, again, that this all comes down to bragging rights. You better bet that I'm going to perfect the art of name-dropping once I'm published alongside those legends.
And speaking of name-dropping, I got to connect with the extraordinary Ryka Aoki
, the show's featured writer. In doing so, I won the invaluable prize of encouragement from another woman of color artist, one who fully embodies what it means to create visibility for queer and transgender people.
Since I hope to integrate my writing with the work it takes to create an impact in social justice movements, I like to think it's all a little bigger than me. So here's what else I won, broken down by the pieces I read in each round.
imprison her or love her or love her or love
- Round 1: I read a poem called "alternatives to sentencing." I won a moment on stage to honor some of the inspiring young people I met in writing workshops at juvenile hall, through The Beat Within. Through art, I won the chance to show that there are always alternatives to our criminal legal system.
who does she think she is?
- Round 2: My poem was one of a series I call "the people say." These poems focus on one black woman doing what black women supposedly don't do. In this piece, I won the opportunity for confession, to admit that I am a black woman who does yoga, in spite of the common thought that yoga is for middle-class white women. To admit that I feel privileged when I can pause to stretch and breathe deeply, while others who look like me only have time to hold their breath and survive.
but i just thought i'd finish our chapter with something familiar: the way this pussy won't fall to you.
- Round 3: My final poem, "the power you left." I won the chance to say the word "pussy" eleven times on stage, and get nothing but respect for it. No, really. And with that, I won the right to have attitude, to emerge from the meek exterior I tend to hide behind, to laugh, to show anger and pride and self-assurance. I can think of times when I've been abused, objectified, or broken-hearted, and I can assure you, that confident attitude was surely a victory for me.
And in a space like The Lit Slam, surrounded by air electric with competition and encouragement and community, I won a boost to better myself as an artist. Not to feel superior or merely to brag, but to honor my fellow writers by recognizing that their art invigorates me to strive to be the best I can be. Especially with the knowledge that my victory can be for more than me.
Much love to Tatyana Brown
, the whole Lit Slam crew, and everyone who was part of that thrilling night. Look out for videos, publication, and name-dropping, coming soon.
Artist: Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski
I'm still brimming with emotion triggered by the court's acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer
, but I haven't given up hope. Oftentimes, the most hopeless moments are those that inspire us to look most deeply within ourselves and our own communities, and we discover, perhaps with surprise, that we're the ones with the answers we've been hoping to find. I've been coming across answers infused with creativity ever since I asked the question of "What will we do?"
The thing is, I'm not seeking answers from the criminal justice system. I already know that what I'm searching for can't be found in courts or prisons or police departments. Mia Murietta wrote an insightful piece entitled "Justice for Trayvon Martin: Why Punishing His Killer Isn't Enough
," posted on the Ella Baker Center's blog, Ella's Voice. As she pointed out, "Our 'justice' system doesn’t deliver justice. It enforces laws. It is a legal system that creates and perpetuates the kind of structural racism and devaluing of black lives that lead to killings like Trayvon’s, Oscar Grant’s, and so many other unarmed, young Black men
." The George Zimmerman case doesn't highlight some previously undiscovered flaw in our legal system. It sheds light on what many of us already knew – that when the criminal justice system operates as it's designed, it bolsters systems of oppression and continues to harm those who have been degraded for centuries. People of color know this. Low-income people know this. Queer and trans people know this, as demonstrated in
Toshio Meronek's Advocate article, in which he frames the choices of LGBT people of color facing violent situations as "Be Killed or Be Caged?" For those of us who aren't white or upper class or straight, it's no surprise that justice for Trayvon does not exist in a courtroom. So, how can we assure our minds to believe that Trayvon can rest in peace? How can we comfort one another in these times of fear, knowing that
any one of us could be the next one murdered in a violent act ruled "justifiable"? How can we hope for change, when every arrest, lack of arrest, or verdict contributes to our loss of faith? I still don't have all the answers, but as people are gathering together to help one another through this difficult time, I'm gathering more clues as to where the answers are for me. And for me, all answers point to creativity. With creativity defined as the use of imagination
or original ideas, it's no wonder that this is the source of hope for me right now. Justice for Trayvon doesn't exist in preexisting systems, so now is the time for our imagination to come to life. I see examples in the city of Oakland, where I live. Betti Ono Gallery has been offering safe space
for folks to come together in reflection and solidarity, to have dialogue about the verdict and the kind of change it calls for. Down the street, Solespace
has had Art 4 Justice workshops
to give those who are emotionally impacted by the verdict some time and space to express themselves. And I also see examples from around the world. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag
has spread throughout the internet to show that we value black lives, even if the courts don't. New pieces of art are coming into existence every day, to mourn for Trayvon
and to depict alternatives to the systems
that allowed Zimmerman to murder him without consequence. Writers are sharing their words of reaction, hurt, and healing – Vanessa Huang included my words in this found poem
, "a living monument of love." Stevie Wonder announced
that he refuses to perform in Florida while the state's Stand Your Ground is in place, and other artists are beginning to follow his lead
You see my point. When we feel lost without hope, we've got artists, musicians, and innovators to create hope for us. On the side of those who want to uphold oppressive systems as they are, they've got badges, uniforms, and gavels. That's a lot of power. It can feel like a losing fight. But then again, another definition of creativity
says that creativity is "marked by the ability or power to create, to bring into existence, to invest with a new form, to produce through imaginative skill, to make or bring into existence something new."
Sounds like a lot of power to me. Where injustice currently exists, we have the power to create something new.
Valentine's Day came and went again this year, along with its usual...challenges
. You know I'm all about the self-love
when it comes to these kinds of holidays, because if nothing else, it can be a good time to remind ourselves that we're worth loving even if we don't have the types of relationships or lives deemed perfect by the mainstream media's standards. But one of the great things that came out of this year's Valentine's Day was more about coming together than being alone. It was One Billion Rising,
a global campaign to end violence against women. People all around the world united in the most wonderful way – by dancing. Anti-violence action and
dance? You know I love it! Taking a stand to say we all deserve to live without violence – in the end, that comes down to self-love, too, doesn't it? For me, one of the most inspiring results of the One Billion Rising campaign comes out of the San Francisco jails, with those who participated there. Maybe I love it so much because I'm connected to these folks through my life and work, but I think this action also spreads a moving message that's important for all of us to hear. Watch "Inmates Rising" below, to see why the inmates danced, and why it was such a special experience for them. This video reminds me of the work of the formerly incarcerated poet Reginald Dwayne Betts. If you're not familiar with his work, I'd recommend getting to know him. Here's a taste, one love-centric poem of his:
"For you: anthophilous, lover of flowers"by Reginald Dwayne Betts
For you: anthophilous, lover of flowers,
green roses, chrysanthemums, lilies: retrophilia,
philocaly, philomath, sarcophilous—all this love,
of the past, of beauty, of knowledge, of flesh; this is
counter: philalethist, negrophile, neophile.
A negro man walks down the street, taps Newport
out against a brick wall &
stares at you. Love
that: lygophilia, lithophilous. Be amongst stones,
amongst darkness. We are glass house. Philopornist,
philotechnical. Why not worship the demimonde?
Love that—a corner room, whatever is not there,
all the clutter you keep secret. Palaeophile,
ornithophilous: you, antiquarian, pollinated by birds.
All this a way to dream green rose petals on the bed you love;
petrophilous, stigmatophilia: live near rocks, tattoo hurt;
for you topophilia: what place do you love? All these words
for love (for you), all these ways to say believe
in symphily, to say let us live near each other.
Women prisoners have been on my mind all week.
Maybe it's because it's now October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month
. And there's a tragic connection
between violence against women and the incarceration of women. The vast majority of incarcerated women have experienced violence throughout their lives, and many of them are serving time in prison for the very acts of self-defense that they had to use to stay alive. So when I think of raising awareness about domestic violence, I have to consider the ways we might shatter the myth that women's prisons are full of villains who deserve to be locked up – No. Women's prisons are full of survivors, who deserve freedom from the violence in their lives. So today, my Friday Friends are the fierce women of Fired Up! Fired Up! is
"a grassroots network of people who have been or are currently, behind the walls of SF County Jail building community with others who are committed to breaking down the barriers those walls produce." Every week, the Fired Up! women gather to grow together, heal together, and share the strength it takes to survive the system that continues to traumatize and dehumanize them.
I know from personal experience that the vibrant energy of this community of women can add a dash of hope to a dreary place. A few weeks ago, they invited a co-worker and I to visit the group as guests from CUAV, and even within the jail's cold, concrete walls, we found laughter, joy, and the undeniable spirit of resiliency. Visit the Fired Up! blog
to read more about what happened when CUAV and Fired Up! joined forces. You can also help celebrate the one-year anniversary of Fired Up! at a screening of the film Still Time, which tells the story of
LaKeisha Burton as she rebuilds her life after twenty years in prison. That screening will take place on October 20, and it will include snacks, a raffle, and a discussion with the filmmaker and with LaKeisha. You can find details about the event on the Fired Up! blog
as well. Fired Up! meetings began
with members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). To learn more about incarcerated women and how you can support the vision of liberation and healing from violence, visit the CCWP website
And if you have twenty minutes to spare, watch "Strength of a Woman" below. It's a documentary "created by the Violence Against Women Committee of the Coalition For Women Prisoners and filmmaker Allison Caviness about the experiences, resilience, and strength of formerly incarcerated domestic violence survivors and the devastating impact that the criminal justice system can have on women's lives." These are heartbreaking stories, but the fact that someone is telling them offers some hope for change.
As I've written before, around Christmas time
and Valentine's Day
, holidays can be complicated. And today, Mother's Day, is no different. Today I'm celebrating my mom, the strong woman whose love and support helped me become the woman I am today. I'm also reserving part of the day for thoughts and prayers for those who might be struggling. Those who have lost mothers, and children.
And mothers separated from their kids - like those whose children are imprisoned
, or who are imprisoned themselves
.I'm thinking, of course, about my own reasons for having complicated feelings about this day. On Mother's Day a few years ago, I sat in a park with my mom and told her that she would soon be a grandmother. That day never came. I had a miscarriage, instead, a couple of months later. Today I'm thinking about
all the moms who've lost their children before they were born.In a way, I feel guilty for spending time on such thoughts today. I see all of the celebratory hearts and flowers and I think, today's supposed to be a joyful day. There's nothing wrong with leaving it at that. But I have a feeling that, historically speaking, M
other's Day is actually meant to hold all of these complications. Did you know about the radical roots of Mother's Day?
I've been reading up on it. First there was Julia Ward Howe, a poet and anti-war activist who began promoting Mother's Day for Peace
in 1872. Then came Anna Jarvis, a childless woman who persuaded Congress to recognize the holiday in 1914, and who grew to resent the commercialism
of the day. So, this day isn't only for Hallmark. Mother's Day is for everyone, including those who may be unable to get through it without shedding a few tears.
Today I'm holding it all, sending my mom one of these fierce Mama's Day cards
from Strong Families, and also recognizing those working for a better world
for all mothers. Thank you for reading, and for your solidarity in holding the complexity of this day.
These prisoners are people, people with lonely hearts, and just like those of us who are out in the free world, they deserve love. There's a great event happening in San Francisco tonight, to show imprisoned people some of the love that they deserve. The Valentine's Day Card-Making Party for Prisoners is taking place at the Mission SRO Collective from 6-9 pm. Participants will include folks from
SF Pride at Work, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Artists of the 99%, and TransGender Intersex Justice Project, and it's open for anyone who can be there. What would you write to a survivor in lock-up, if you could? Even if you can't make it to the event tonight, there are ways to help prisoners find hope by reminding them that they're not alone in the world. The organization Black and Pink, one of the sponsors of tonight's event, runs a pen pal program to help LGBTQ prisoners communicate with folks in the free world. Visit their website to learn more about this program and others like it.
They also have great information on the prison industrial complex and how we can help build a movement against it. Here's an excerpt from their brilliant analysis
: "Our organizing efforts are guided by a larger goal of collective liberation. We hold strong to a feminist, anti-racist, queer liberationist, anti-capitalist, radical analysis of social, ecological, and economic struggles. We understand the prison industrial complex to be part of a larger system that utilizes systems of oppression to divide people and exploit our individual and collective power. Through movement building and sustained direct action against these systems of violence we will create the world we dream of. We also celebrate in the beauty of what exists now including our love for each other, the strength of our planet, incredible human resiliency, and all of the power we have to continue existing. While dreaming and struggling for a better world we embody a deep commitment to living in the present."Find out details about tonight's card-making party on Facebook or on the Black and Pink website. Here's a great video on resisting gender violence without cops or prisons, featuring author Victoria Law.
With Valentine's Day less than a week away, this time of year can make anyone feel the lonely blues. But life's especially lonely for those who are in prisons, separated from their communities and families, often experiencing and recovering from violence, while taking in messages that oppressive violence is the kind of treatment they deserve.
Last Thursday's Generation FIVE fundraiser
Tonight at InsideStorytime
, I'm reading a piece set in Trinidad. It's a piece that feels deeply personal, in a strange way. I guess I can wait until after I've read it to elaborate on that. But it makes sense that the idea of writing as an act of discovery
applies to reading and sharing work, too. Each reading brings surprises. Sometimes, discoveries come through self-reflection on my work and its relationship with the audience. And always, I find something new by sharing the experience of that work with the audience.At last Thursday's Generation FIVE fundraiser,
for example, I gained more insight on how my poetry fits into the framework of Transformative Justice
. It really felt right to be part of an event that included the brilliant voices of Vanessa Huang and Janee Smith, as well as a moment to join a stand for human rights by making phone calls to support the Pelican Bay Prisoner Hunger Strike
. I'm still in the process of taking in everything that evening offered. For tonight's reading, I'm already making new discoveries, as I think about this piece and what it means to me. I'm also looking forward to readings by Michael David Lukas
, Angie Chau
, Heather Fowler
and Andrew Dugas
. With Ransom Stephens
as the MC. Come by if you're in the Bay Area tonight. Our art engages us in conversation, and the more people join, the more we can all discover.
800 Post Street
San Francisco, California
Today in Oakland, we have a chance to speak out against dangerous profiling and support programs that create real safety and change in our communities. Oakland's City Council is considering an end to the city's gang injunctions. Many people and organizations, including CUAV
and the ACLU
, have offered statements detailing the negative impacts of gang injunctions on communities of color, youth, LGBT people and other folks most in need of our efforts to build safer communities. Learn more about the arguments on both sides here
. Here's what you can do if you're in the Bay Area: Come out to City Hall to show your support for an end to the gang injunctions, and to lend your voice if you can.
If you can't make it out, you can call or e-mail
to voice your support.
Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it out there, because I'll be with The Beat Within
tonight, writing with the young people of San Francisco's Youth Guidance Center, the juvenile hall where so many of the city's youth of color end up as a result of San Francisco's gang injunctions. These youth write regularly about the experience of being profiled, of how hopeless it seems to "do right" when police will always treat them as if they've done wrong, simply because of their appearance. Their stories show that these injunctions oppress young people of color, and tear families apart, contributing more to the cycles of violence that plague low-income communities. So, what do you think of the injunctions? Are they working