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.

“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.

“You give voice to your grief”

This week I am in Cape Cod, MA exploring voice and movement through Archetypal Journeys with Janet B. Rodgers (formally of VCU) and Frankie Armstrong.

We started with the Archetype of the “Spiritual and Temporal Leader” (think of Mandela, Gandhi, Dalai Lama) and this part always resonates with me.

Now you round the corner, and for the first time in such a long time you see the habitation. You see the destruction that has happened. Many buildings have been destroyed. Many people walk thin and hungry. You give voice to your grief as you lament for the people and your community.

Especially given the devastating Zimmerman verdict yesterday, I always feel like I have so many communities to grieve for. And I am hyper-aware of how I am publicly perceived in that I am not allowed to appear as angry, hurt, or frustrated as I really am.

So yesterday, I had permission to grieve. And I grieved. I grieved through the Archetype and its narrative journey. I made sounds that are not acceptable or appropriate for a young woman of color in a Western society. I grieved for Trayvon’s family, I grieved for young black men in America, I grieved for my birthmother, I grieved for all 200,000 adoptees whose lives were manipulated from the moment of their birth.

The Archetypal mantra for the Spiritual and Temporal Leader is:

I have the right to be here./ And I have nothing to prove./ I am who I am.

I will keep saying this and believing it. Some days I’ll believe it more than others. I hope you are saying it too.

“Embracing the complications and the contradictions”

In a recent roundtable discussion in Minneapolis, Asian American artists came together to discuss the current state of Asian American theatre, their influences, and the relationship between their creative work and their identity.

Key quote from poet Bao Phi:

I feel like America’s narrative talking about race and all of these things – gender, sexuality – is becoming more and more complicated, for the better. And I’d like to see media coverage embracing the complications and the contradictions, rather than figuring out what stories fit into preexisting narratives and paradigms.”

As educators, we can embrace this challenge as well and provide our students with more opportunities to express their own stories and explore identity intricacies. A number of students have told me that they have been given text to read/perform in class by authors that maybe shared their parents’ nationality or just the color of their skin and they sometimes felt pressure to connect with this writer.

Linda Her, a spoken word artist and activist, reflects on the intersectionality of their identity locations and the challenges this sometimes presents:

“My experience as a Hmong American queer woman and performer has been that when I’m invited to a LGBT specific event it’s filled with all white folks, and then when I’m invited to a Hmong space to perform it’s filled with majority straight folks. I would love to have a space that is inclusive of all your selves, your identities. For example, how is the notion of marriage equality different for couples in which at least one person is an immigrant? How can we include those experiences?”

I would also love such a space, Linda. When I’m with adoptees, I’m rarely able to articulate the deep somatic experiences I’ve had as a trained actor and voice teacher that have impacted the trauma caused by the separation from our birthmothers. When I’m with theatre people and academics, it is hard to articulate the part of me that is non-White and frustrated. Interracial adoptees and other diasporic have to deal with this fragmentation their whole lives. I’m used to it but never comfortable with it. And like these artists in this roundtable, I’m manifesting spaces that are more inclusive of all our different selves.

Bao Phi’s poetry is really stunning and full of complex layers. I will be posting some of his work in the future.