Speaking poetry as embodied empathy and as social justice.

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, many of us have been left feeling helpless and hopeless– small and ineffectual against an overwhelming and oppressive system. Living in Seoul and seeing the events in my country unfold across Facebook and Twitter, I have felt especially isolated. To be clear, in no way am I seeking to equate my feelings with the violent and fearful experiences of my Black brothers and sisters or with the grief and rage of the families of these fallen young people; my frustration and anger are in solidarity with them.

After the Zimmerman acquittal, I came across the poem (above) titled “Father” by Matthew Kelty. I knew that I wanted to work on this poem and do a reading of it. Poems are meant to be spoken and heard, not only read silently to ourselves. Like esteemed verse reader Betty Mulcahy believed, enjoying poetry by looking at words is not unlike trying to appreciate music by looking at a score. As a voice and text coach, I teach people to experience words in their entire bodies, to allow full and free breaths in, and to be physically open to the powerful images such words create. Kristin Linklater writes,

“When words are mainly experienced in the head and the mouth they convey cerebral meaning … By indulging sensory, sensual, emotional and physical responses to vowels and consonants – the component parts of words – we begin to resurrect the life of language.”

What does teaching others how to speak poetry have to do with social justice? Having engaged with many people in a myriad of contexts about identity, race, oppression, White privilege, and hegemony, I have come to realize that intellectual debate (a somewhat Western idea in the first place) has its limitations when it comes to making social progress as a community. This is because oppression is, by nature, irrational. Debate, statistics, and logistics all have their valuable place when it comes to dialoguing about things like racism. I am an academic; I love these things. I love catching people in logical fallacies, I love finding a fact that flies in the face of some broad stroke, and I love seeing the impact I’ve had on others through calm and diplomatic reasoning. I just don’t think this is enough. Because I am not just an academic; I am an artist and a performer. Richard Shusterman writes that “rational arguments for multi-cultural tolerance always seem to fail … because the hatred is acquired not by rational means but by the captivating aesthetic power of images” – images from our TV, laptop, phones, movie screens. If this is true, then perhaps we can create movement from the other direction.

I believe the gap that keeps oppressed people silent and privileged people from listening is about empathy. I do not mean this as a platitude. I am talking about real, embodied, feel-it-in-your-bones-and-under-your-skin-and-through-your-breath empathy. David Granger has written a fantastic article about teaching and oppression called Somaesthetics and Racism: Toward an Embodied Pedagogy of Difference (2010), arguing that “…culture, with its complex of symbol systems, ideals, values, beliefs, and customs, has its roots in the lived body” (my emphasis). Therefore, just talking rationally about oppression is not sufficient for progress. We perpetuate unjust systems because of something deeper in us, our breath and chest tightening when we get defensive, our tension in our shoulders deepening when we see a Black male on the street, our jaw clenching when privilege is mentioned.

When we teach people to embody the images that spring up from powerful speeches, poetry or other types of text, we are seeking to breathe the way that speaker breathed, see what they saw, and feel what they felt. This is beyond rationalizing and intellectualizing. It is empathy and understanding in a physical sense, a gut sense, and a heart sense.

Kelty’s poem is well-written and powerful. He clearly uses the length of lines and punctuation to indicate to us how he imagined Trayvon Martin’s father’s breath patterns to be. He gives us long vowels to express his grief and sharp plosive sounds to convey scathing anger and energy. I have never known what it feels like to lose my own child or to have a Black body in a dominant White culture. But speaking this poem and honoring its soundscape and rhythms opens my body towards a greater capacity for connecting to Trayvon’s father’s pain. His stark images, his rage and grief, and his building breathlessness all create a physical experience in my body as I speak Kelty’s words. Therefore, I am able to feel a greater connectivity to others who have suffered from similar injustices and to my own pain for being a woman of color who has experienced oppression as well.

I am grateful and inspired by movements such as #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and I am honored they gave me their blessing to tag this piece.  There is a reason this movement started and that millions are physically gathering together in the US to show solidarity. It is because being with other bodies and allowing our voices to be a live, resonant chorus moves us in powerful ways.Black lives matter. Greatly. Until more of us get beyond only intellectualizing that and truly feel a sense of shared humanity in our bones and our breath, I fear we will continue to struggle.