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.
Tomorrow, CUAV and MCCLA present Color of My Spirit! This post is cross-posted from The CUAV Blog
To love ourselves is to celebrate ourselves is to give ourselves a moment to shine in the spotlight, I say. So I'm really looking forward to doing just that at CUAV's 3rd annual Color of My Spirit, our performance night of queer and trans artists celebrating our survival and resilience. This year, we have a really exciting lineup of performers, including our returning host, Yosimar Reyes, who will share new poetry and lead us on a journey through song, dance, film, and more.
When we applaud, we will clap as audience members, witnessing the gifts the artists offer us by bringing their work to the stage. And for many of us, we will also be appreciating our own strengths, reflected in the strengths of the performers. As queer and trans people, we deserve to show ourselves some love for how we've managed to thrive in spite of forces trying to put us down.
Color of My Spirit will coincide with the time we spend with the Spiderweb of Self-Love, our wellness tool that helps us finish the year with activities all about showing ourselves gentleness and care. When I think about the connection between Color of My Spirit and self-love, I think about the young person from Our Space who watched the performers last year
from El/La and was moved to tears, having their first experience of seeing such positive images of trans women, as they prepared to come out as transgender themselves. And I also think about my own life, because it is so meaningful to me to have this annual event to help affirm and celebrate my existence as a queer black woman.Color of My Spirit
takes place on Thursday, October 3rd, at 7:00 pm at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. We hope you can join us there!When: October 3rd, doors at 7, show at 7:30Where: Mission Cultural Center, 2868 Mission @ 24th St, San Francisco
$10-20, no one turned away, buy tickets hereSpanish and ASL interpretation provided
Fully wheelchair accessible
Help us keep this event accessible by not wearing scents or perfumes.
Buy your tickets ahead of time to make sure you don't miss this powerful night!
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.
Last night's event was so much fun!
And here's footage from an event a few months back - The Color of My Spirit,
CUAV's spring showcase of queer and trans artists celebrating survival and resistance. Empowered youth, uplifting song, dance, poetry, comedy. Need I say more? I read my poems near the end, but the whole show is really worth watching. Featuring Joshua Merchant, Rosa Cortes, Tonilyn A. Sideco, Monica Enriquez-Enriquez, Nomy Lamm, myself and OurSpace, with host Yosimar Reyes. Enjoy!
The concept of change from within
continues to touch my writing these days. And I'm thinking not just about change from within my own body, but also from within the communities who need it most. So often, we see it happen the opposite
way – change taking place as outsiders see fit, without consideration of the community's voices
speaking to what's best for their own lives. And usually, this kind of change follows certain patterns. Out with the liquor stores, and in with the wine bars. Out with the graffiti, in with the art galleries. And, of course, out with the low-income people of color, and in with those who can afford to live in the more expensive, new and "improved" version of the neighborhood. At the July Lit Slam, the stupendous featured poet, Danez Smith
, read a poem he'd written from the perspective of a prostitute witnessing gentrification in her neighborhood. "My pussy got a Whole Foods," he read. The poem was a comically clever, making me laugh and making me reflect on the neighborhood where I grew up. It's still Whole Foods-free, and without gentrification, that land is sort of sacred ground.
And I know it may seem somewhat strange, to celebrate the preservation of conditions that are awful in so many ways. I'm from Stockton, California, a place that usually goes unrecognized unless it's at the top of a list measuring something like rates of crime, or unemployment, or overall misery
. The parks near my old house host more drug deals and gun fights than picnics or barbeques. Recently, Stockton has made international news
for the way it's worsened in the economic downturn. The news doesn't seem to indicate that Stockton will improve any time soon.
So as I watch, I wonder where things will go from here. Will Stockton communities continue to experience award-winning misery? Or will they see positive change, as some believe
? If so, my hope is for the people of Stockton to be able to feel safe and thrive, rather than being displaced by some new wave of privileged folk who decide that change is worth it because they've moved in.
You know me – I find hope in poetry, in the telling of stories from the voices of the people. So With Our Words
, a Stockton-based organization promoting youth development and leadership through literary and creative arts, is on my radar. Here's a video of Stockton youth competing in a poetry slam, with a piece that draws attention to the measures some take to find hope for change under dreary conditions.
When you’re learning to write, they say it’s all about the senses. They say I shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not readers can understand what it’s like to be me, or to have my experiences, as long as they’re in touch with something they can sense through the body.
So I shouldn’t have to write about my feelings after this weekend. I shouldn’t have to explain what I’m thinking about family, illness, separation and change.
Instead, I can write about the echo. I can tell you that the house I grew up in didn’t always have an echo. I guess that’s because the chairs and beds and tables always absorbed my sound before. But I didn’t notice until now. Didn’t realize until yesterday that the house itself, when empty, just takes my voice and tosses it back to me.
I can tell you about a touch that feels familiar, though it’s been long forgotten. About the uneven surface of an old diary, now small in my hands. About opening the pages, running my hands over the grooves of the pen marks, just a child’s scrawl now, though I didn’t see it that way then. About the churning in my gut as I realized I was reading documentation of my early discoveries of the same forces shifting me now. Of change taking place more rapidly than I could grasp. Of what it meant to be recognized for my body and nothing else, and wondering, with doubt, if that, too, would someday change.
I can write about the emptiness of my open hand as I tossed the diary aside, into a pile of old books, as if it, too, was forgotten fiction, written by someone who isn’t me. I can tell you how the dust from the diary’s cover remained in the grooves of my skin, and how rubbing my fingertips together only deepened its resting place.
And maybe then I won’t have to worry that you’ve never been there, discarding the final remains of my childhood. Maybe I can just hope to offer a glimpse of how it feels.
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.
I remember when I read poet Bassey Ikpi's article in The Root
last summer. The one in which she tells the world about Siwe Monsanto, the bright black teenager, daughter of Ikpi's close friend. The girl who wrote beyond her years, and also danced, and also cut herself, and also committed suicide at the age of 15. I remember thinking, how brave and generous of Ikpi, to share her grief with us, to tell Siwe's story without shame or fear that this isn't what we're supposed to be talking about. See, Siwe's more than a number to add to statistics of the increasing rates of black teens losing their lives to suicide.
All of those who have lost their lives are. But without sharing their stories, we bury them in the silence so many communities of color hold around the subject of mental health. Stigmas against
seeking out mental health treatment or even admitting you're struggling
only hurt us, and oftentimes, those who hurt the most are our most vulnerable, the youngest among us. And it's not just a certain type of dialogue that allows these stigmas to continue. It's also a lack of dialogue. That dangerously still silence.
So now, Siwe's story is not just words, but action. Ikpi's launched The Siwe Project
, an organization that believes in the power of storytelling for individual healing, as well as community transformation. The project aims to help build "a world in which people of African descent can openly share their experiences with mental health challenges and feel supported in seeking treatment without shame." Visit the website
for more details, and check out poet Bassey Ikpi
in this touching video created for The Siwe Project. And also? Tell your stories.
What does it mean to be you? Would you know how to answer that question if somebody asked? How deep
inside yourself would you need to look to find the answer? It is, after all, an answer that can only come from within yourself, based on what your identity means to you, and nobody else. What if the question was narrower? If someone asked you what it means to you to be of your race, your gender, your age? Here's a question that seems rare: What does it mean to you to be a black man? When popular perceptions of black men come so often through aggression in the media and the sobering results of the prison industrial complex, the authentic voices of black men speaking for themselves about what life means to them can be forgotten. So I'm really intrigued by the transmedia art project Question Bridge: Black Males. It's an installation currently showing at the Oakland Museum of California,
as well as a few other locations around the country. Through a unique video format featuring a question and answer exchange between 160 black men, the project "seeks to represent and redefine Black male identity in America."To me, part of what's intriguing about projects like this one is how seemingly simple it is. It's a big endeavor, setting out to redefine black male identity, and yet, rather than calling for a complex creative process, it begins simply with asking questions and offering answers. This shows how powerful it can be to just speak from our own perspective, rather than allowing the media to speak for us. In this interview with Colorlines
, one of the Question Bridge artists, Chris Johnson, speaks of creating as an "engaged artist," "trying to do something that’s transformative for people that experience it." With just a glimpse at this project, it's easy to see how such an installation can, indeed, be a transformative experience, both for those who took part in creating it and for those who witness the results. A glimpse is all I've gotten so far,
but I can't wait to get out to the Oakland Museum of California to see more. You can read more from those who have seen the installation here
, and visit the Question Bridge website
for more information about the project and where you can see it in person. Here's a preview of what you'll see. What questions would you ask these men if you could? What would you ask someone like yourself? How would you answer?
One video that was especially popular during holiday time was this one of a little girl complaining about the way toys are marketed by gender
. Sure, I can grow up and complain about Barbie's role in my life when I was a kid, but it's so much more refreshing to see this child speak up about it now, telling us that she deserves more as she lives through girlhood. When young people find the courage to say for themselves
that they need something more, they deserve at least for us to take a moment to listen.
And here’s a girl who says that all of us deserve better – this thirteen year old talks about slut shaming
, what it is and why it’s hurtful. Her insightfulness blows me away.
And, of course, I gotta love little girls raising their voices
through music. “My First Hardcore Song”
is by Juliet, also known as the 8 year old who’s way more badass than I’ll ever be.
In a more disappointing example of a video gone viral, a Girl Scout named Taylor
is using her voice to ask people to boycott Girl Scout cookies, in order to show opposition to the Girl Scouts’ decision to include a transgender child in their organization
. I’m glad to see girls finding their voices, but it makes me cringe to hear such a voice putting down others. So instead, in this example I’m applauding Bobby Montoya, the transgender child brave enough to speak up for the chance to be where she feels she belongs. She’s opened the doors for a delicious way to make a difference – all we have to do is eat more cookies
to show our support for an inclusive Girl Scouts organization. Sign me up!
Also, check out Girl Scouts’ new Year of the Girl campaign
Overall, I’m loving the presence of girl voices in viral videos these days. They’re not listening to any messages that tell them to grow up before they speak up, or to stay silent their whole lives. Sure, imagine a world full of women who raised these voices in girlhood. But before we fast forward, let’s stop and listen. The girls are speaking to us. Right now.
The online videos making their way around the networks these days show an encouraging trend. Girls who aren't yet old enough to outgrow playing with toys are outgrowing silence and shame. They're speaking up and being heard. They are, as they say, going viral. People are listening.