Tag Archives: National Poetry Month

“The Daily Commute” — National Poetry Month 2018

by Gabriel Valdez

Robyn Lambird is a Renaissance woman: an athlete, poet, critic, and model. She’s pushed each sphere for inclusion of people with visible disabilities like her own.

Sometimes when someone from a vulnerable community pushes into these spheres, they’re confronted with an argument that participating in things like advertising only furthers the abuses of capitalism. When I write about movies with people of color in them being successful, I’m always confronted with someone (white) telling me that it only means people of color are now engaging in a system that de-prioritizes them.

Somehow, people who are othered are expected to make themselves a priority of that system without ever touching it. It’s presented to them as bad when they’re successful at making themselves a priority of it. Somehow, they have to change the shape of these systems without ever touching them, they’re supposed to fight their disinclusion without ever including themselves.

It’s never acknowledged that the ability to step outside that system is a privilege. There’s much less risk involved in refusing to participate when you know that system will always give you something even when you give it nothing. There’s even less risk in asking those without that privilege not to participate; in fact, that act maintains the nature of the system you’re simultaneously asking people to fight.

By not working inside of it as well as outside of it, people who are othered are encouraged to sabotage their ability to change its shape. This maintains the status quo, which is why it’s an argument so often made by enabled critics when people with disabilities are successful, as well as by white critics when people of color are successful, by male critics when women are successful, and by straight critics when LGBTQ people are successful.

Lambird has a great deal to say about the advantages of pushing inclusion of people with visible disabilities into the advertising sphere:

The question is always: doesn’t someone’s representation in that system make them a cog in it? Yet the histories of vulnerable communities show their members that a lack of representation makes them even more of a cog in it – an invisible one, with quiet voices no one listens to, and a cog that has no power to re-shape the system as a whole.

This extends beyond advertising, movies, music, and into politics, social change, the shape of activism.

Perhaps no group of people has had to fight this more than the disabled community. We share their feel-good stories when it’s cathartic for our purposes, but then we question whether their participation is good when it’s useful for theirs. We sometimes aim to tell them a better way of doing it when we have no access to their experiences and so can’t know their priorities.

This is practiced in every relationship of a privileged community to a vulnerable one, but even those of us in one vulnerable community can possess a privileged identity in relation to someone else. We too often utilize the success of a person with a disability as support for something we want to say or a way we want to feel. We don’t often utilize the success of a person with disability as a platform for what that person and that community wants to say.

In other words, we too often share the voices of people with disabilities in order to have ours heard, instead of using our voices to raise theirs and convince others to listen.

Privilege should be exercised as the responsibility to raise others’ voices, not as the right to stand on others’ voices to raise our own.

Here is “The Daily Commute” by Robyn Lambird:

The feature image is from the YouTube video here. Lambird has a number of videos discussing how disability is treated in society, athletics, and fashion on her channel.

“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.

“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.