From what perspectives do you approach your art??????????

The title of this blog post is a real-life excerpt from an e-mail I just received from Cara (whose chapbook, as I have mentioned, you should purchase). Does anyone have an answer I can borrow?

If there had only been, like, eight question marks, I would have tried to get away with an answer like “from my perspective,” but the 10th one really just demands that I try a little harder. I’m featuring at Common Ground on Thursday, which is all kinds of exciting. Except that I’m also a little anxious, and I thought the theme was going to be “growth,” not “perspectives.” Now I am all discombobulated and trying to figure out what my perspectives are.

Clearly, I am at an articulation peak and will have no trouble speaking in front of people. I’ve been working on edits for my chapbook, after having given myself the arbitrary deadline of June 30 a few weeks ago. Three times in the last week, I did this weird thing where I let other people read my work, which was nerve-wracking and vulnerability-causing, which I suppose could seem surprising, since I’m blogging about feeling vulnerable right now, as if I have absolutely no filters or sense of shame. But hey, I am just a mass of contradictions and feelings.

Making things more awkward and squishy, the chapbook has now become exclusively love poems, since there are so few poems about other things that they awkwardly stood out. (Thanks to Cara for reading the unedited collection of everything, and lending her perspective,* helping me to finish breaking me out of the not-editing slump of the last 10 or so months.)

Wow, this post has, like, no connecting narrative thread. I just wanted to say that I’m excited to be writing more, and even though I feel strange and vulnerable about letting people see all of my poems (and my one secret short story) as a collection, I have also felt completely energized over the past week, and more motivated to write than I have in … maybe the past decade. I’m learning how to get over the fear of being judged, and also learning how to push past wanting first drafts to work immediately. I think I actually prefer editing to writing, so having something to go back and tinker with is immensely rewarding, but it requires putting things down on paper (or in digital 0s and 1s).

Umm, artists. It’s nice to be around them. Also, incidentally, I think the universe is teaching me a lesson in dramatic irony. I bartered with a co-worker, that I would write her artist bio if she would let me take on a book-binding apprenticeship. We did a whole interview, and then I spent good chunks of the rest of the day narrating everything around me in her artist’s perspective. And then I went and checked my e-mail and discovered that I owe Common Ground a bio, too. And then I realized that describing your perspective on art is hard.**

* See, brought it back to the theme!

* Writing someone else’s bio, however, is fun! And my co-worker likes the one I wrote for her, even though I printed it out in Comic Sans, with her name in orange and blue Word Art at the top. I am kind of a jerk sometimes.

Poem recognize poem

Oh, hey there. It’s good to see you again. I really appreciate the feedback on the last post; it’s led to a lot of great follow-up conversations, and I can’t begin to quantify the healing power of knowing that I can surround myself with people who understand both the stakes and complexities of social justice issues.

This post is decidedly more upbeat, as it’s about the joys of that surrounding effect — definitely a related topic. Whereas the last post was all about the distinction between being nice (and/or polite) and being good, it is quite nice to know that I get to spend a hearty chunk of my time with nice, polite, wonderful — and good — people, working for, toward, and through social justice.*

Last night I stage managed Tuesday Night Cafe (time-lapse!),  fulfilling a decade-long dream of getting to introduce myself to people as “stage manager.”** I suppose I could introduce myself as anything, to anyone. And maybe I will. Anyway, it was a fantastic experience, learning and otherwise. I particularly enjoyed the moment where we were in our pre-show circle and I realized that one of the artists was missing — you know, one of those minor details that just magically works itself out. (He showed up, like, two minutes later.) This was our second collaboration with Common Ground, an excellent group of excellent people.

Look at all these beautiful artists! Posing post-show on May 1 in the JACCC courtyard. Sorry this is such an obvious FB screen cap. Not fixing it! Photo by Steven Lam.

As I was sitting back and soaking in the third set, Claudia (a totally dope poet, check her out with Duende!) caught me off guard by dedicating her second poem to me, because it was inspired by one of my poems. I will note that this is not a humble brag — it was an entirely humbling and inspiring moment, and it was exactly what I needed after all of the nonsense I mentioned in my previous post.

Two posts ago, I wrote about how excited I’ve been to be around live poetry and music, and to be spending chunks of time with artists who constantly surprise and challenge and inspire me. Two Wednesdays ago, I came home from a MidTones Open Jam at Bar Nirvana, and I could not go to bed because I was so excited about how excited I was to be alive at that moment in the exact place where I am  in my life, having spent the day working at a nonprofit I love, followed by a meeting with the aforementioned surprising/challenging/inspiring artists, followed by a couple of hours of musicians rocking out and having fun. (I will also admit that I realized, “Wow, my life right now is cooler than I thought it would be.”)

Anyway, long digression. Back to poems. Also a few weeks ago, I was at LAnguage, a spoken word show at The Last Bookstore curated by Mike the Poet (co-curated that Sunday by Traci Kato-Kiriyama, of Tuesday Night-founding fame), and a bunch of poets I admire were reading poems about their fathers.***

As Traci was reading “Rain,” I started scribbling a few lines of what I hope will some day grow up to become a deeply personal account of my relationship to my own father. Right now it’s an awkward teenager and doesn’t want you to look at it. Unfortunately for poem, I need to share this part of it:

Two of my favorite poets read about their fathers today
with words that reached straight into some part buried within me
striking chords

I panicked for a moment, felt guilty

When you go, what pieces of you will I hold tight to?

Claudia’s poem includes the stanza (among other, excellent stanzas, which I have! Because she let me keep the copy she read last night!):

I told my mom I heard a poem once
About a girl who was ashamed to be ashamed of her culture
I told her I felt like that was me
That’s why we have to keep it alive, she said
That’s why I still practice this language with you
This isn’t the same poem, but
Today my heart will send a postcard to my mother
Because love and apologies transcend these zip code barriers

The last three times I saw Claudia perform, I a) wanted to call people up and say, “Hey you need to see this!” and b) wished desperately that I had a teleporter so I could whisk people in to experience it for themselves. This time, I was just trying to keep it together, not just because I was moved by her dedication, but also because there is something profound about having another person articulate the secret parts of yourself that you are still searching for.

Art is a bridge, and a mirror, and a whole host of other metonyms about seeing self and others and connecting. It is also, wonderfully, a catalyst for change, dialogue, questioning, and more art. I have said it before, and I will say it again. I am so damn lucky to get to be part of this community of artists. Thank you for reminding me that I love people.

* I apologize that I keep lumping together complex, intersecting issues under the broad umbrella of “social justice,” without having really defined how I’m using it and my own relationship to the term. Topic for another post. (“Topic for another post” being a strong contender for tagline to this blog.)

** Once, in high school, I was offered a stage manager role for the spring musical, but then the drama teacher found out that I was also in mock trial. Sigh, art and law — never the twain shall sit down for a cup of coffee and hash out their differences.

***(Hey, also, you should buy Cara Van Le’s “A Roof & Some Refuge.” I can’t find a public link and don’t want to post her contact info sans permission, but maybe if you think really hard about chapbooks, she will appear in front of you with one in hand. Ordering information!)

Number of tabs opened while writing this post: 15. Number of references I decided to save for another post: 2.

I’m not laughing

Note: I edited this post on Sept. 15, 2014, to put asterisks in the t-slur in a quote, as this is a transmisogynistic slur that is not mine to reclaim.

“If racism is the punchline, I don’t get the joke.” — Julian Bond

I had a really frustrating afternoon today: It was an ignorant comment (the fourth or fifth in succession over the course of a week), one of those off-hand, throwaway remarks that might be a joke, but just really isn’t funny. Earlier in the day, I’d had another discussion about not using a slur as an insult, and the person I was talking to actually defended the comment by saying it might have been an accurate description of the people she was talking about.

I am seldom at a loss for words. (People who know me IRL, back me up.) But I was just, like, “I can’t even, what … no.” And then I was upset with myself, because, you know, teaching moments, environments of inclusivity, social justice and public education, etc. But also, take some responsibility. I was describing this incident at home during a TN meeting, and Chris asked, “Was it racism by choice?” by which he meant, was it deliberate racism, or did someone just not know better? I think once you’re old enough to think for yourself (moving target for some people, true), all of it is by choice. It doesn’t matter how you were brought up or what you were told as a child — take some responsibility.*

In any case, I’ve been meaning to write commentary about this fairly excellent article for a few weeks, and now I just want to post huge chunks of it because it contextualizes a lot of today’s angst really well. You know, racism, privilege, oppression, etc. I think the commentary post was delayed by by not having much to add other than, “Yes, I think you argued that point excellently.” Sometimes we need to write things, and sometimes someone else gets there first, and I think you can just go ahead and be happy that at least it’s been articulated.

To that end, I am happy that this has been articulated, by Social Justice League: “Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a ‘nicer’ world. … [T]he conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.”

I’m going to take some liberties and bullet-point summarize/excerpt some of the highlights, but I really would rather that you read the whole thing in its entirety.

The Revolution Will Not Be Polite:

  • “Several people said that trying to find non-oppressive ways to insult other people is “missing the point” of social justice. Those people seem to think that being nice is a core part of social justice. But those people are wrong.”
    • Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!).
  • “An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people.”
  • Conflating nice + good –> control over marginalized people, by demanding that people asking for rights from the people oppressing them behave in a certain way
And just before the conclusion, there is this fantastic bit of commentary:

I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “t*****” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.

When I was writing my honors thesis, my friend Maggie had to force me to stop reading the comments on news articles about same-sex marriage. Repeatedly. (My thesis was about media representations of gender transgression, so the toxic drivel was at least serving some academic purpose, but it was also corroding my soul, my belief in the inherent good in people, my hope for society, etc., not to mention the pain of being forced to read some of the most poorly constructed sentences ever.) Along with the spewing hate (from “both sides”) and bashing was the aforementioned fundamental misunderstanding of privilege and the devolving cycle of homophobic comment –> ad hominem attack* –> retaliatory ad hominem attack + comment along the lines of “See, gay people can’t even have a civil discussion, why do they deserve marriage rights?”
The next graf of the article includes the following analysis:
“So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people.”
Today I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, and I didn’t want to seem like the angry QPOC, and I also just didn’t feel like it was my duty to have to enlighten someone who was blithely, happily, obliviously being obtuse. I was mad, and I didn’t want to use my words. It wasn’t worth my time and emotional capital to have that conversation then with that person. But the next person who makes the next comment the next time …

*I have more thoughts about education and critical thinking, obviously, but that’s a topic for another post, or five, or twenty. Just started reading bell hooks’ “Teaching to Transgress.” Get me through this, Gloria!

** Including one of the most confusing tactics, accusing homophobic commenters of being secret closet gays. Which, I guess, yeah that makes sense to call them something they find morally repugnant, but your use of sexual orientation as an insult is reifying the norm that homosexuality is the worst thing ever.