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.

“I dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs”

London Eye, October 2007. Photo: Amy Mihyang Ginther

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

~Maya Angelou
One of my students chose this poem last year to work on and I think it’s power and impact surprised both of us. Angelou’s use of consonants and vowels are really gifts to the speaker. The Ts and Ds in bitter, twisted, trod, dirt, dust feel like getting kicked again and again. I love the Ss in sassiness and the H in haughtiness; you can sense how they grate on people around her. Angelou uses Ls and Ws and vowels that glide and move around the sharp plosive consonants with leaping, wide, welling and swelling, air. And of course. the wonderful diphthong in I, rise, high. The repetition gives us a sensation of a resilient wave. Our tongues actually rise in our mouth as we say rise. Mmmm.

For reasons he is/ not sure of, he also adds/ scallions at the end.

The New York Times is using an algorithm to find randomly select 17-syllable bits from daily articles are posting them as haikus.

This is a Tumblr blog of haikus found within The New York Times. Most of us first encountered haikus in a grade school, when we were taught that they are three-line poems with five syllables on the first line, seven on the second and five on the third. According to the Haiku Society of America, that is not an ironclad rule. A proper haiku should also contain a word that indicates the season, or “kigo,” as well as a juxtaposition of verbal imagery, known as “kireji.” That’s a lot harder to teach an algorithm, though, so we just count syllables like most amateur haiku aficionados do.

Some of them are better than others (they acknowledge this). But there are ones that are just lovely.

It’s hard to find your/ bearings in the middle of/ a cataclysm.

I am well aware how poets can painstakingly choose just the right word for their pieces so the idea that a computer program is picking sentences at random maybe be unnerving for some. I think the Dadaists would certainly appreciate the chaos of this method, though. And it is reassuring that such serendipity can be found in something as quotidian as our daily news. Any time that something like poetry can be shaken from grips of the idea of ‘high art’ that is only accessible for the cultural elite, I am glad. Although, some might argue that the New York Times can be pretty elitist.

Many of us work with haiku with text students before we move into more complex pieces like sonnets. In addition to having students write their own, using these are nice because they touch upon our current cultural context and students can connect with them while still working on image, breath, and thought within a given structure.

If you’d like to read more about the project, you can visit the about page. And no, they don’t scan articles with sensitive material, so you won’t find haikus about severed limbs and date rape.

as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied

Photo: Amy Mihyang Ginther, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, July 2011

“Final Notations” by Adrienne Rich:

it will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple

it will touch through your ribs, it will take all your heart
it will not be long, it will occupy your thought
as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied
it will take all your flesh, it will not be simple

You are coming into us who cannot withstand you
you are coming into us who never wanted to withstand you
you are taking parts of us into places never planned
you are going far away with pieces of our lives

it will be short, it will take all your breath
it will not be simple, it will become your will