“What Teachers Make” — National Poetry Month 2018

by Gabriel Valdez

We’re all happy to share Facebook posts, retweet, or upvote on Reddit when there’s an inspirational story about someone’s life being changed by a teacher. We obviously believe in the idea that teachers save lives and shape futures. We believe in the idea that teachers help get kids out of dangerous cycles of violence. We believe the power of teaching can help students overcome systems stacked against those kids.

We just don’t believe in paying those teachers. Why not?

It’s almost as if we want to believe in the exceptionalism of teachers as a way to confirm our own sense of exceptionalism, our ability to better the lives of others, our ability to turn around and help the lives of others when they need it…only to fail in doing so when the time comes, when those whose stories we use to reinforce our sense of exceptionalism turn around and ask for help – for their students and themselves.

We’ve already used teachers to make ourselves feel like we’re culturally capable of helping, which is very convenient when we turn around and we culturally refuse to help.

They only work three-quarters of the year? Sure, and during those three-quarters of the year, they’re working 60+ hours a week without overtime. They’re at school before students arrive and they don’t leave until after students leave. That’s already 9-10 hours a day. Then they go home, lesson plan, grade papers, read essays, grade tests, communicate with parents. That’s easily 12 hours a weekday during the school year, as well as time during the weekends. And then they may work summer schools, tutoring, they may run camps and programs for which they’re also paid meagerly.

All the while, those teachers and their families have the same needs that you and your family do, with less time, less money, less job stability than most.

This doesn’t even begin to address the sorry amount we spend on children. We’ve got a federal government trying to eliminate school lunch programs for hungry children as teachers in various states protest in the streets for salary increases, yes, but also for increased spending on students.

It’s ridiculous of us to ignore them, to flock to the next story of a teacher changing someone’s life and then ignore teachers when they tell us what they need to change someone’s life.

Either we believe it or we don’t. Right now it’s more like we believe it enough to make ourselves feel good, but not enough to do anything about it. That’s not good enough.

We believe teachers save lives and change futures, and we do something to allow them to do even more of that. Or we lie when we say it, and stand on their work as a prop for comforting our conscience.

Here’s “What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali.

The feature image of the Oklahoma teacher protests is from a USA Today story on nationwide teacher protests here.

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“cuz he’s black” — National Poetry Month 2018

by Cleopatra Parnell & Gabriel Valdez

There’s a meme going around that shows what proportion of your life the U.S. has been at war. We’ve seen it before; an update circulates every year or so. If you were born in the 80s, it’s about half your life now. Later in the decade and it’s almost there. Yet that’s not true for everybody who will look at the chart. For many, they’ve never known a United States that isn’t at war.

The United States is not officially at war with Black communities. The country just poisons their water in places like Flint. We don’t get invested in that. We’ll post about it here and there – but years on and are we still making noise? Yet an article that shows the quality of water in your own neighborhood, or across the U.S., will make you worry and share and maybe even contact your city hall.

We marvel today at the dilapidated conditions of schools in Oklahoma as teachers strike. We pay attention because some of those schools serve communities with large white populations…yet teachers in Black communities have been trying to show you the conditions of schools in places like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland for years. We celebrate the teachers striking for student resources in Oklahoma, as we should. But where was our celebration for the teachers in Black communities? Where was our support? Where’s the media?

We celebrate the students from Parkland, Florida, as they protest gun violence. As we should. The media gives them platforms to speak – as they should. But we should have for Black Lives Matter and black students fearful for their lives. I write this on the heels of another Black man being shot by police just yesterday, for holding a shower head. On the heels of the Black man shot before him, on the other side of the country, for being in his back yard with his cell phone.

We celebrate and give platforms to these issues…once they impact white people and white communities. Once we have white leaders to stand and talk about them. We understand their anger and why it’s legitimate.

Yet we’re always conveniently elsewhere until then, when these things impact Black people and Black communities, when Black leaders stand and talk about them. We debate whether their anger is legitimate.

War has been such a condition of our lives that we’ve trained ourselves to treat wars in far-off lands as immaterial, intangible, not truly real. That’s bad enough. Yet even when war’s waged in our own backyards, on our own neighbors, we fall back on that training. We only concern ourselves when it might touch us, instead of the person standing next to us.

We should expect much better of ourselves, and acknowledge that we fail until we do.

This is Javon Johnson’s “cuz he’s black.”

The feature image is from the YouTube video here.

“In Which Every Poem that I Write Becomes a Poem About My Body” — National Poetry Month 2018

by Gabriel Valdez

You’ll find a hand-wringing every year that poetry is dying. In the Atlantic, in Newsweek, in the New Yorker, in many good, strong, aware publications, in academic circles, for publishers, poetry is breathing its last breaths. Fewer people read it than ever before, for as long as readership has been polled.

Yet how many people come across a Rupi Kaur poem on Instagram or Facebook? Well that’s not poetry, we’re told, not really. So when they answer that poll, do people remember that they have read poems?

If we listen to poems on YouTube or see one performed, we haven’t read a poem. But it still has the same impact on us. We may not pick up the books the same way, but we still seek it out. We listen to poetry more than ever before. But that’s not reading poetry, we’re told.

Music is more ever-present in our lives than ever before, and lyrics are musical poetry. Many of the same people who will tell you that music can’t be poetry will insist tooth and nail that the greatest poet of our time is Bob Dylan.

Rap is an evolution of many of poetry’s fundamentals, but because it’s not owned or monetized by the groups invested in “What poetry really is,” we’re told it’s not really poetry. It should be looked down on as something lesser instead of looked up at with reverence.

Are there bad poems on Instagram, or YouTube? Is there bad music and rap? Absolutely. But there’s always been bad poetry. What’s new is the accessibility and diversity of good poetry.

Poetry is more accessible than ever before. Take Kate Hao’s searing “In Which Every Poem that I Write Becomes a Poem About My Body.”

This would be stunning on page, but as performance it’s unparalleled. It’s shocking and traumatic, and most importantly, its deeply, hauntingly honest.

Look at any other era and a few dozen people may have heard this poem. When else could an Asian-American poet, a woman Asian-American poet like Kate Hao be heard by tens of thousands? When else could a brutally honest poem about impostor syndrome and trauma, and possibly sexual assault and racism, be communicated 140,000 times?

Poetry is very much alive, and more diverse than ever, and more vital than ever. They say it’s dying; I say it’s never had so much lifeblood. It can say much more, it can break the cage of “What poetry really is,” and performance this accessible and challenging can make more of us hear it and feel it like rarely before.

Poetry isn’t dying. It’s simply changed, and for all this age’s other problems, I’m dearly thankful to live in an era where poetry is becoming something very different, easier to access, and more diverse.

Content Warning: impostor syndrome, sexual assault, racism

The feature image quoting Kate Hao’s “In Which Every Poem that I Write Becomes a Poem About My Body” is a cropped version taken from Button Poetry’s Twitter post here. Button Poetry features many superb poets with new voices, and I highly recommend following their Twitter and YouTube channel, which features the performance above.

“Imagine the Angels of Bread” — National Poetry Month 2018

“This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.

This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts
the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth; this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.

If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles, then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.

So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.”

– Martin Espada

The feature image of refugees arriving on Lesbos Island in Greece comes from Memphis Immigration Project here.

“Still I Rise” — National Poetry Month 2018

by Gabriel Valdez

Maya Angelou’s voice was one of resistance and progress through celebration and hopefulness. She’s rarely called upon or referenced as a precursor to Slam and contemporary of the Beat poets because she was so unique a voice, focused on cultural experience and the future rather than personal history and the past.

She’s extraordinarily important today. Many do work in organizing, activism, and politics that burn us out. There’s a hopelessness that’s tempting because anger can be used as fuel, and our anger is very legitimate. Yet giving into it fully risks our greatest strength in terms of resisting: community.

Community can’t just be built on anger; it has to be built on hope, connection, a path forward. Anger risks isolation, and isolation is what wears us out the most. It makes our thinking two-dimensional and inflexible.

Anger has a place – it’s certainly earned, and you should never ask vulnerable communities not to be angry at their exposure and the history of harm they’ve sustained. You can even see Angelou’s show through here.

At the same time, anger must be tempered in Resistance, one of many emotions we learn to sit with and which can contribute to complex, realistic, flexible communities of activism.

The feature image of Maya Angelou comes from the New York Times’ farewell to the great poet. You can find it here.

Yes, It’s Realistic that Roseanne Voted for Trump

by Gabriel Valdez

In the 2018 re-launch of “Roseanne”, it turns out that white, feminist, Boomer icon Roseanne Conner voted for Trump. Many feel that this is a betrayal of the character. Is it?

No. It’s deeply accurate.

If you think it’s unrealistic and a betrayal of the character that a white feminist Boomer icon like Roseanne Conner would vote for Trump, I don’t think you yet have a realistic idea of what happened in 2016.

Boomers voted for Trump by a 9-point margin.

That means white Boomers voted for Trump by a double-digit margin.

White Boomers who were women voted for Trump by a slightly lesser margin…but they still voted for Trump.

This was especially true of white Boomers without a college education, such as Roseanne.

The show is set in Fulton County, IL, on the western side of the state near Iowa. That county voted for Trump by a margin of 15 points.

Roseanne Conner is at a demographic intersection where she would have been extremely likely to vote for Trump.

Trump won white voters by a greater margin than any in our history outside Reagan ’84.

This includes a lot of people who would have been ostensibly liberal in the 80s and 90s.

During the original run of “Roseanne” from 1988-97, Fulton County was one of the most liberal in the state. In fact, it hasn’t gone Republican since 1984.

You should feel betrayed – but not by the show. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t critique it or its messages. But if you think Roseanne Conner would never have voted for Trump, you’re still not looking at 2016 with a realistic eye for what happened.

There are results where racism overbears other progressive leanings. We need to understand that.

A lot of Roseanne Conners voted for Trump, and if you can’t recognize that, you’re harming your ability to understand why and to work against it.


The feature image of the “Roseanne” cast is from Biography here.

Men Need to Expect More from Men

by Gabriel Valdez

I went to look up more information on the Maryland school shooting, and the shooter’s motives in relation to an ex-girlfriend.

What came back was a host of articles going back the last year of men shooting ex-girlfriends. This search was limited to Maryland.

So I looked up Massachusetts. Mississippi. What about states with less population? Vermont. Wyoming.

Again and again, pages and pages, of men murdering girlfriends and exes. Pages and pages going back through time for each without even reaching incidents prior to 2017.

There is a significant, unaddressed problem with toxic masculinity in this culture. This is hardly the first time I’ve said this and I’m hardly the first person who’s said this. It’s been said for decades, and in different language for centuries across the history of our culture.

It doesn’t change unless men expect better from the men beside us. It doesn’t change unless we talk with men about this, even men we agree with, because it has to be normal for us to talk about it. It can’t just be something we bring up when we think there’s a problem.

It has to be something we bring up because it’s important and core to our culture and core to who we are as men, and who we want the men beside us to be as men, what we want our community and culture as men to value. When it’s a problem, it’s already too damn late, and somebody’s already getting hurt because our silence and complicity and avoidance of the topic has already been interpreted as license.

Higher expectations of other men doesn’t mean a damn fucking thing if we don’t voice those higher expectations, and make doing so a normal part of our lives, a normal part of their lives.

Otherwise our expectations are empty, and we only speak them to remain perceived as safe by women in our lives – and that kind of subtle politicking is so you can interpret the performance of ally-ship as your own license, as your own excuse, as your own fallback.

This is common with every privilege – whiteness, straightness, being enabled. If you don’t go out to other men and do the work of it, and vocalize your expectations of them, you’re simply politicking to the people around you so you can keep safe a harbor for your own privilege.

As men, we need to do so much more. We need to not just feel safe because we have a moral expectation, but we need to risk feeling unsafe because we’re willing to hold others up to the same. People are literally dying because too many of us aren’t willing to step outside the realm of ally-ship that’s most convenient and comfortable. We need to fucking get over that.

The feature image is from the ABC News story on the shooting here.

Movies and how they change you.