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.

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“Someone complimented me on my English last summer. This was my response.”

This is a new performance piece I wrote for the VASTA Cabaret in London this summer at my alma mater, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I workshopped it at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, which I am quite proud to say that I am now summer faculty there, teaching Voice and Speech.

This piece has lived in me for over a year now, as the actual incident that opens the performance happened during the summer of 2013 in Brooklyn. I felt like it was important to highlight the idea that oppression does not come in only explicit, hateful forms but from the educated and millennial peers that I hang out and work with in my progressive circles.

When microaggressions happen, I don’t always want to confront the person and give them some diatribe about social justice; sometimes, I just want to drink my fucking cocktail. Storytelling and performance allow me to express all the things I think and feel in that moment when I was made to feel small. And hopefully, I can share it with more people this way and they will be more open to seeing their own complicity in these structures because performance leads to a type of distanced perspective that gives us more space to reflect.

A number of people have asked me what my process is for creating this type of work. For this piece in particular, I allowed it to sit in me for many months, not putting anything on paper. A month or so before Perry-Mansfield, I made a basic Mind Map of major milestones that I wanted to cover. Then I began to look up songs and lyrics to see how I could weave them into my stories.

After over a year of blogging about voice and identity and culture and social justice and theatre, it is wonderful to create something that is exactly the thing I’d find online and want to post about anyway. I’m grateful to my Hofstra, Seoul, Perry-Mansfield, and VASTA families for all their support through this process.

“Our voices have been silenced. And it’s not doing us any good.”

A brilliant and moving TEDx talk by Australian singer and social entrepreneur, Tania de Jong AM on how voice makes us healthier, happier, and connects us as a community.

This is a perfect video to watch today, which is World Voice Day! Tania says,

The neuroscience of singing shows that when we sing, our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. firing up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins, that make us smarter, healthier, happier, and more creative. And you know what’s really great about this? When we do this with other people, the effects are amplified.

See guys, this is what voice coaches have known for ages. When you sing or speak, free of judgment, you feel good. You feel connected to others and alive and empowered.

Last week, a friend called me on Skype. She’s been going through some tough stuff lately, and it all seemed to be catching up with her in an intense way. I listened. There wasn’t a lot of constructive advice for me to give, really. She just needed to be heard. She told me that she did some yelling and screaming in anger, which is a really good release, but I thought, perhaps she’ll feel better if we sing together. So we did, via Skype, sitting on two very different continents. She felt better, I felt better. We did something beyond rationalizing or neurotic analyzing. We just breathed and vibrated.

As an adoptee living in Seoul and working in social justice, I believe this type of work can heal trauma but also be just as radical and effective as a type of activism as protests or petitions (watch the video in full to see how singing together has enabled and affected concrete social change). There is space for all these types of activism and they all serve unique and vital functions. As Tania says, we need to step out of all our boxes. And that includes oppressive identity boxes as well. We need to breathe and resonate together and enjoy the time we can be in our bodies with others in safe and creative spaces.

I will be teaching my first voice and empowerment workshop specifically for Korean adoptees here in Seoul in May and my first workshop for women in NYC in June (details to come!). This is the way I am choosing to engage and enrich the lives of others. This is the way I choose to use my gifts and teaching and time to be an activist. And it is amazing.

Happy World Voice Day, everyone. I am so happy and grateful to be doing what I’m doing and to be supporting others in finding their voices onstage and off, in our classrooms, in our society, for ourselves.

 

“Isn’t it sad that I can’t use my real voice with White people?”

Someone asked me recently what strategies I propose or support in encouraging effective and progressive engagement about race and identity. One such way I often respond with is different types of comedy and performance. Some of the most interesting cultural criticism and reflection can come from comedians, particularly comedians of color or from pluralistic backgrounds like Aziz Ansari, W. Kamau Bell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Hannibal Buress, etc (although it should never be a PoC’s responsibility to discuss or educate others about these issues and people like Louis CK are doing a great job talking about Whiteness).

Aamer Rahman is a stand-up comic of Bangladeshi descent who spent much of his life in Australia and a lot of his material deals with identity, race, and White privilege. I first heard of him through this brilliant bit debunking the myth of reverse racism, which is I think still one of the most concise ways of commenting on this idea thus far.

Rahman has another bit from his show, Fear of a Brown Planet, where he talks about what workshops he wants to create for White people. As a voice teacher, this part struck a particular chord.

You know, we actually have speak differently, to White women? If I’m in a bank or any kinda of job interview, any kind of professional setting, I have speak differently, to a White woman, just so she doesn’t get scared. I have to smile more, I have to appear less threatening. I don’t pull out a knife or a gun, suddenly I actually have to make my voice higher, this is not even my real voice, this is my White voice. Isn’t that sad I can’t use my real voice with White people?

I think a lot of PoCs have a “White people voice.” It can vary depending on our background. Women in general can often change their resonance or pitch to be taken more seriously by men as well. My “White people voice” is actually louder and more forceful and masculine to convince White people that I’m not a passive, subservient geisha-type of Asian person. I believe that as a result, accessing a more vulnerable-sounding head, face, and mouth resonance has been most challenging for me in my personal voicework journey and that I tend to push or create unnecessary tension in my throat.

Rahman’s point here is important as many voice teachers in the US/UK/Australia, etc still are nice White ladies. And acting students of color are often trying to assimilate and code-switch in order to successfully navigate the socio-cultural constructs that still continue to play out in our education systems. Given the goals of many voice teachers to free the voice and make it a reflection of who a person truly is, I would say that we must be aware of the power relationship our own identities create and how they impact our students, no matter how caring and well-meaning we may be. And this is not to say, of course, that ALL PoCs have a “White people voice” or that people from White, monocultural backgrounds don’t have socially induced vocal hang-ups. But I think what Rahman’s talking about is a very real phenomenon and we should be dialoguing and reflecting about it more.

“So, Harry learned how to be still, to camouflage, to be the least.”

This video (Harry Shum Jr., Ze Frank, & Elana Farley) has been making the rounds recently and there are many things that resonate with me.

  1. Harry’s childhood pain being bullied as part of a diasporic community.
  2. The fact that Harry healed, grew, and blossomed through theatre and dance.
  3. The acknowledgement that so many of us have lived in shells but one day they may not have such a useful purpose anymore. Perhaps at that point, they actually limit us and our potential.

“And if someone carves into a sapling with a knife, the injury is as wide as the entire trunk. Though that mark will never fully heal, you can grow the tree around it, and as you grow, the scar gets smaller in proportion.” ~Ze Frank

This is a stunning metaphor and something so many of us (especially those from diaspora) work through during our lifetime. It’s not about ignoring or burying our painful experiences, it’s about the fullness of our being expanding around those things that will always be part of who we are.

My only (slightly nitpicky) thing as a voice teacher is the reference to Harry getting into theatre and speaking through the words of others- which is a huge part of theatre, of course, but I also advocate for the type of theatre where we speak through our own voices and writing as well. Because they are just as valid and powerful as those who have been published beforehand. I’m grateful that Harry is using theatre and dance to express all of who he is now.

Jay Z said it so it must be true.

Love this:
Rap is pretty much thinking out loud, you’re talking and you’re putting your fears and your vulnerabilities and your, you know, your bravado, insecurities, all on music. And it’s there for the world to see. You’re really giving a glimpse of who you are.
Same could be said for voice, for speech, for singing. You are giving a glimpse of who you are. Speaking, singing, rapping is a gift of ourselves into a space, to others. I also really appreciate that Jay Z is trying to create both a bodily and abstract space for the interaction between what society has deemed low art and high art. This is why Cis Berry loves rap so much.
It’s important that to find a genuine and humble appreciation for the “low art” or “pop culture” movements our students are authorities are on. And not some bullshit, “oh that’s nice, now here’s the REAL stuff.” Our students can sniff that out pretty quickly.

“I guess I’ll go this way. I think there is a Staples down there.”

Ok, so this is only tangentially related to my research foci, but it is evocative and intriguing. I had thought about doing a similar video installation (on my list of 9,383,832,928 things to do) that explores our running narrative about seeing people and their visible identity locations (or the assumptions I’d make about them) in public spaces.

Anthropologist Andrew Irving has recorded 100 people verbally narrating their inner thoughts in New York City as they walk through the streets. I found this part of the artist’s particularly compelling:

“…once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.”

The idea of inner speech, imagery, muscles, blood, and nervous system all working together in a symbiotic relationship – this is exactly what many of us are trying to do with our acting students when they are working on text. And I particularly enjoy the emphasis here on urban life. Often, as voice teachers, we resort to a lot of nature imagery and metaphors. We often use our voice classes to escape our modernized world and get back to what is “natural” and “organic.” I’m interested in shifting the binary of nature = good/urban and modern = bad. Is nature imagery important to voice work, text work, poetry work? Omigod, yes. Especially if the text was written among those landscapes of yore. Can urban living create habitual tension in our bodies from low levels of the fight or flight reflex? Definitely. Living a city can have a negative impact on our ability to be vulnerable. That being said, what I like about this video project is that I see some green shoots springing out of some of these established paradigms. How do we, as students, artists, society, find a way to be expansive, empathetic, and vocally open within an urban environment? Can we challenge ourselves to use urban landscapes to explore our vocal potential?

For more information on Irving’s project, you can go here.