Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a while. Even as I sit here now beginning to type, I can feel my stomach tying up in knots. I’ve written at length about my sexual assault on this blog, but most of it has been in relation to some political rant or another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in “the personal is political,” but this is a different type of post here.

I’ve decided to write this post today because the 1-year anniversary of my sexual assault is approaching. And so much has happened and changed in the past year. The truth is, though, it’s all been for the better. If you had told that to myself in October, 2010, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was at the lowest low in my life. The fact of the matter is, when a sexual assault happens to you, it’s like a domino effect of your entire world being shattered. It’s not just the assault–it’s the way others treat you because of it (no wonder so many choose to stay silent). My assailant was my best friend and a collaborator. I lost all of our mutual friends. I broke up with my boyfriend despite him being my biggest support system, because I couldn’t fathom the idea of being romantic with anyone ever again. I barely had the strength to go to school and complete my homework, despite my being just a few credits away from graduation. Literally, my entire world had been shattered.

And the assault couldn’t have come at a stranger time in my life, either. I had just gotten back from New York City a few hours before, where I’d seen my all-time favorite band, Pavement, perform the last leg of their reunion tour from the front row in Central Park (which, at that time, was probably #1 on my list of coolest experiences). I was set to perform in The Encyclopedia Show, one of the world’s (let’s be honest, probably the only) fastest-spreading literary variety shows, in the coming days, and I’d just finished writing the perfect poem on my topic: somewhat ironically given the events to come, “Bare Naked.” The same night I got back, I jet-laggedly rushed to meet up with my musician to show him the piece and finish writing the song–after all, the performance was just in a few days. When he offered me an adderall, I accepted, even though I’d never tried it before and had no idea what to anticipate, because I wanted to stay up all night to perfect the piece. How could I have known his intention would be to wait until I passed out, drugged out of my mind, and take advantage of me?

It was a Friday night. The show was on Tuesday. I won’t focus on the event of the assault here, because that’s not what’s important. What is important to me, today, is that I decided to do go through with the performance. Despite the fact that I had spent all weekend in a hospital room getting a rape kit done and talking to various authorities about the event, despite the fact that for at least an entire month after the event I was so depressed I literally did not get out of bed, I had to make a decision about what was important to me. And that decision was whether or not I would let my assailant take away an important opportunity in my life, or be strong, and find a way to perform my piece without the way I had practiced and prepared it with the man who had taken advantage of me. I asked my sister, a musician, to help me, and we came up with something the night before the show.

It’s strange for me to watch this video. The trembling in my hands and legs, the sadness in my eyes, seems all so obvious to me, although there were only a few people in the room who knew what had happened. I remember the moments while reciting that poem when my mind would wander back to what had happened to me just a few nights before–and I remember pushing those thoughts away to stay focused on my performance. There were several moments when I almost started crying, and didn’t. And in the end, when I crack a smile and look back at my sister, who smiles back at me–I can see the shared moment of trust and triumph. Needless to say, I feel very blessed to have this video as a relic of this small victory.

What’s more, this performance was a very important moment in my life for another reason–not that I knew it at the time. Like I previously mentioned, I lost all of my close friends in the wake of my assault. But today, I have something even more valuable–my sister, the people in the room, the poets who performed and came out to support me, would come to be my lifeline in the coming months, although they would be almost completely oblivious to it. Who would have thought that something like a sexual assault and the loss of all my close friendships would come to be the event that propelled me forward in my passion? Who would have thought that the utter despair and loneliness I experienced would send me somewhere completely unexpected, into a poetic community, that would welcome me with open arms and a type of love and understanding that I would never have to question or doubt?

There was another moment that came a little later that was very important in my recovery as well. Like I said, I spent literally months so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed. Then, one day, instead of choosing to do nothing about my emotions, I decided to write a poem. I’ve often said that I write a poem when I feel so much of a certain way that I can’t do anything else–this was precisely the moment when that first happened. I wrote a poem that contained all of my sadness and struggle from the past year. I made all of my emotions small enough to be contained in letters on a page. And then, a few months later, I performed again, in the Louder Than A Bomb College Indy Slam.

To be honest, I didn’t score that well in the slam (well, in my opinion–my goal was to win the whole thing of course). I was more interested in getting involved in LTAB for the opportunities to work with high school poets than to compete. I’ll be the first to admit that my competitive side isn’t pretty, and I’m a pretty sore loser. I cried a lot after the competition. But getting on stage and sharing a poem I’d worked so hard on, both in terms of literariness and performance, was incredibly important to me. As Robbie Q. Telfer, the co-founder of the aforementioned Encyclopedia Show and director of LTAB, says frequently: “The point is not the points, the point in the poetry.” And although I didn’t know it at the time, and certainly wouldn’t try to perform that poem again, opening up about my experience to a room full of strangers, unafraid of their judgment, was a profoundly empowering experience, and one that’s propelled me forward in the aftermath.

I’ll get to the point, here. A year ago, I was a senior in college, the president of a student poetry organization, oblivious to the fact that school was going to be over soon and I’d have to figure out how to make this whole “being a career poet” thing work. My priorities lied in getting drunk with my friends and having a boyfriend at all times. Of course poetry was important to me–it always has been–but it wasn’t my life. And for most people, it probably shouldn’t be their life. After all, everything I’m trying to say is that it took a life-changing, post traumatic stress-inducing event for me to get to that point.

But that’s not it, exactly. Yes, I threw myself into my poetry as a way to get my mind off of what had happened. But I did something else, too–I threw myself into the community here in Chicago as well. I surrounded myself with people who were poets, a couple of whom were my age and had merely been friends through association, who now are my very best friends in the entire world and have my back in a way no friend has ever had before. What’s more is that the poetry community in Chicago is a very special place where things like sexism, ableism, homophobia, and the rest won’t fly or get politely golf-clapped off stage when performed (unlike in New York where I watched a guy perform a poem about how “all women are whores” and “gay marriage isn’t in the Bible” get wild applause at the Nuyorican Cafe). I’ve become more than just a poet, but an organizer–someone who has given back to the community a hundred fold what it’s given to me–because I wanted to surround myself with intelligent people who had the strength to share their pain the way I did, but also the strength to just keep trying to be better. I think about the people who have become important in my life in the past year and scoff at what was important to me a year ago–people who held me back and distracted me from my dreams.

It’s weird how, a year later, I can look back at something like my own sexual assault and subsequent depression and see it as such a valuable and life-changing experience. I can’t say I wouldn’t have found my way to the 24/7 poetry lifestyle if it weren’t for my assault, but I do know that my life would be profoundly different. I wouldn’t have the good, supportive friends I do if I didn’t have a good reason to forget about the old ones. I wouldn’t have had the balls to compete in a slam if I didn’t write a poem that I thought was good enough for it. My life and work as an artist has taken a dramatically different turn–from organizing SlutWalk Chicago to having the opportunity to work with some of my most idolized poets–if I hadn’t had the hard life experience to propel me in that direction. And I certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to speak out about my own experience and help others who are going through similar situations if I hadn’t lived it.

So, here’s a final video: me, today, performing a new poem that addresses my beliefs as a feminist in a different way than the videos above. I wouldn’t have had the strength to do this, either, if I hadn’t let go of the pain that haunted me for so long.


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I’m lucky to live in the wonderful city of Chicago. It’s my favorite place to live, my adopted hometown, and an important city for poets as the hometown to the Poetry Slam. Recently I traveled to New York and took part in the slam at the world-famous Nuyorican Cafe (the former home to Def Poetry Jam) and noticed a key difference between their scene and ours–feminist poetry was pretty much non-existent, and in fact some openly misogynistic poems scored pretty well. Meanwhile, in Chicago feminist poems are prevalent at pretty much any poetry slam, and often come from unexpected sources.

I like the Chicago poetry scene because political poems are encouraged to be shared from all prospectives, even when it’s a white woman talking about race issues or a black man talking about domestic violence. I’d like to share some of my favorite poems about issues of gender, empowerment, and female oppression that belong to big-time poets and newcomers from the Chicago area. Watch the videos to let the poems speak for themselves, and then let me know what you think.

1. Tony Denis, “Mothers”

One of the few poems that’s made me cry, read by a classmate of mine at Columbia College. He got a perfect score in the slam but, in turn, got slammed by the time restraint (still placing fourth overall despite the 4 point deduction). It still remains a memorable poem, and I was impressed by the insight and empathy young Tony demonstrated. Mothers are understated heroes and I admire that he made an attempt to pay his dues with this poem.

2. J. W. Baz, “Anointing the Hand”

This poem is a poignant statement on what could be called “masculinism” but is nevertheless important in the context of a larger discussion on gender and violence. Baz is a former Def Poet who slams Hillary Clinton (rightfully so) for being old money and equating soldiers to barbarians. I like this poem because as a feminist, it’s easy to forget the everyday struggles that people face other than women, and this poem totally made me see the world differently.

3. Robbie Q. Telfer, “2002 Silver Chevy Cavalier”

Okay, so, this is a feminist poem, huh? Well, maybe not. But I still love it for its hilarious satire of manliness equating to how many “bitches” you fuck and how nice your car is. Robbie Q. is probably my favorite poet, not just for his mad skillz, but also because he’s made a career working with at-risk youths through his efforts with Young Chicago Authors. Respect.

4. Marty McConnell & Tristian Silverman, “The Female Body”

My favorite poetry power couple. I loved them both separately before realizing they were dating, and had the pleasure of hearing them perform this piece in person during class called Queer Poetry. They both are stellar poets apart from each other who are perfect examples of “the personal is political” without being boring, overstated, or pretentious, using their personal stories as vessels for a range of topics from confused sexuality to checking their own privilege. They never isolate anyone with their poems. I think in the context of that conversation, this poem largely speaks for itself, and I like the juxtaposition between Marty’s rambling definition of “the female body” and Tristian’s nervous apprehension when seeing a naked lover for the first time.

5. Andi Kauth, “Orchestra of Bones”

Andi is another old classmate of mine from Columbia who has recently propelled herself to National acclaim as a slam poet (go girl!). This is her signature poem and for good reason–it addresses issues of body image and self-esteem in a completely original way, one that takes gigantic risks through exposing the ways bulimia had failed her and the way the bodies of starving people are commoditized through photographs. It’s a controversial favorite, but one has to admire the fact that she was willing to share her very human story and prospective, even when unflattering, on a national stage.

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“The woman artist” is a notion that persists today, assumed to have gained the most strength during the Women’s Liberation Movement. Today, the idea behind “woman art shows” is the same as it was in the 60’s and 70’s—to give women a platform in which to share their art, lest they be marginalized in the regular art world. Almost all of the time, these shows focus around female empowerment, and, by association, feminism. But, truth be told, whenever I attend these shows or take part in them, they leave my feminist senses with something to be desired.

A month or so ago, I caught wind of a “feminist show” at Locked Out, one of my favorite Chicago venues that doubles as an anarchist commune. I was pumped about it, expecting to show up and see lots of riot grrrl style bands. But the real show was nothing like that. I walked in at the beginning of a performance art installation that featured many naked women on stage, just standing there and being naked, and what looked like the Bride of Frankenstein with a phone cord wrapped around her neck in the middle of it all. Once the performance was over, the host informed us, “The artist wants you to know you can interpret this installation in anyway you please.” I thought to myself, Really? Because this looks like blatant sexual objectification under the mask of avant garde to me. The next act? An all-male band with a female front woman who, again, made little to no actual feminist commentary. The fact that the only reasonable explanation for this band performing being because of the sole female member added insult to injury, especially when I know of several local all-male bands that deal with feminism in a more direct way. Not only was this show failing as a statement for feminism, but it also struggled to find enough talented, all-female artists to fill the bill.

To be honest, much of women’s art has gone this route—an art student’s desperate, yet failed, attempt at political consciousness—or another route: to try to continue to exemplify feminist art from the Women’s Liberation Movement rather than expand on it in the Third Wave. If you said this was because there have been very few prominent feminist art influences since that time, you’d be half right. If you said this was because feminist art is still trying to market itself as art for women by women when the conversation has been expanded upon immensely, you’d be on target.

“Hey! What’s wrong with making feminist art for the purposes of feminism?” You might ask. Well, there’s nothing wrong with making art for whatever purpose you see fit—or for no purpose at all. What’s wrong is the way this art is presented to its audience, almost always through “woman artist” shows. It’s not that “woman artists” are less talented because they’re women, it’s that most serious artists reach a point in their career where the last thing they want is to have an extra noun tacked onto their title, be it “woman artist” or “gay artist” or “black artist” or “working class artist.” At this point, I should hope the interests of feminism have progressed so that “woman artist” and “feminist artist” should not be synonyms. I know female artists who would like to have nothing to do with feminism and many male artists who frequently give adapt insights to our oppressive climate. Many of those actually talented have the title “woman artists” thrust upon them by others, regardless of whether or not they identify as such. When someone says, “Here’s a poem written by a woman poet,” it’s like saying “Here’s a poem I wouldn’t bother to read if it weren’t written by a woman.”

Not every “woman artist” rejects the notion of being labeled, however, and these artists usually fit into one of two categories: 1) they need the exposure and are willing to play-up their womanhood in order to get it, 2) they recognize that being a “woman artist” and making feminist art will gain them a place in a community. The second one I consider to be much more damaging, because the “woman art” community, in true tradition of Second Wave Feminism, continuously isolates other political opinions, not to mention female artists of color. Yeah, there are still a lot of poetry open mics that feel like old boys clubs, and sometimes when I get up on stage and share my poetry, I know I’m going to have to deal with at least one audience member hitting on me after the show. I have been to plenty of open mics where I was the sole female contributor, and seen as a novelty for this reason. But the fact of the matter is that the objectification of women is really not much better at these “women’s only” shows. Fuck, at the feminist show I previously mentioned the vast majority of the audience were males who find hyper-sexualized art arousing, and the so-called feminist artists were more than ready to give it to them. This climate is no less threatening to women and their legitimacy as artists than any other.

So should woman artists shut up and just try to compete with the white males who still dominate the art world? No, but they could certainly try to look at the art world in a way that isn’t either half a century old or, more often than not, concerned primarily with getting exposure for their political platform (and, by association, themselves). The obvious solution—to me, at least—is for artists who are truly concerned with politics not to isolate themselves to a venue where everyone will share their opinions, but to try to make political art more visible, yet more subtly political, outside these realms. Perhaps it’s easier for me to say this because I live in a major city with a seemingly endless supply of galleries, venues, and cafes seeking artists, but in the age of the internet and the rising popularity of blogs (or other forms of self-publication), there are even more outlets for art and audiences for it than ever before.

One phrase closely associated with feminist art is “the personal is political.” This was true in the 1960’s as it is in our time. But the fact of the matter is, unless you are extremely careful not to isolate your audience, people are more likely to not relate to your personal political poem. It’s dangerously easy to bypass technique in favor of getting a political message across clearly. One should never sacrifice artistic integrity in favor of better voicing their own opinions. Instead, one must look at the challenges they face as both an artist and someone with political opinions, and accept them in order to make great art. After all, in art, it’s not sound opinions that influence people, it’s mind blowing compositions that make people see the world in a whole new way. Let’s focus on that, shall we?

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If A Woman Stands Upright

If a woman stands upright
she is a violent, rotating column of air.
She is a cumulonimbus cloud.
She makes the sky rumble.
If a woman stands upright
she takes the form of huge bladder
whose face is all mouth.
She will kill with a rotating column of air.
They are the narrow end that touch the earth.
She is are encircled by a blur of debris.
If a woman stands upright
she expands in both length and width
before belching everything back out again.
If a woman stands upright
she is penetrating the ground,
the soft elastic folds of mucous membrane skin.

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I’m gonna keep the word I gave to you
after we tossed our bodies around
on the cold dark concrete
of the balcony, your limbs so swift
I don’t even care if you burn me with your touch
but you don’t, and the two
glowing orange eyes of our cigarette butts
are the only thing watching us devour each other.

I’m gonna keep the word I gave to you
but don’t mistake it for a love poem.
This is the sound I make when I let my voice ring out into you.
These are the words I spell
with the palindromes of our body.
Your thigh, my thigh, my thigh, your thigh,
your fingers catching my fingers catching your fingers,
your hair echoing against my face
the same way my hair falls around your eyes and mouth.

This is not a love poem.
This is sincerity
because when we kiss it’s the best goddamn kiss I’ve ever had
and it makes my blood curdle and all the alcohol in me starts to boil
and that’s why I threw up all over my car when we were driving back to my place,
because I wanted you so fucking bad I had to explode
and then I had your soft skin the same color as my skin
to clean my body, I had your mouth the same shape as my mouth
to swallow me and then
I was just a ticking time bomb in your gut
waiting to blow you up from the inside.

This is not a love poem.
This is the word I’m gonna give back to you,
the word I’ll give to you any time you want it
because, baby, I hope you never shut your eyes
so you and I can stare into each other
like mirrors reflecting infinity.

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Perhaps I was born kneeling,
born coughing on the long winter,
born expecting the kiss of mercy,
born with a passion for quickness
and yet, as things progressed,
I learned early about the stockade
or taken out, the fume of the enema.
By two or three I learned not to kneel,
not to expect, to plant my fires underground
where none but the dolls, perfect and awful,
could be whispered to or laid down to die.

Now that I have written many words,
and let out so many loves, for so many,
and been altogether what I always was—
a woman of excess, of zeal and greed,
I find the effort useless.
Do I not look in the mirror,
these days,
and see a drunken rat avert her eyes?
Do I not feel the hunger so acutely
that I would rather die than look
into its face?
I kneel once more,
in case mercy should come
in the nick of time.

-Anne Sexton

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